Senator Boyle, Representative Welsh, and members of the Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. My name is Pete Didisheim, I am the Advocacy Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and I appreciate this opportunity to testify in support of LD 1744.
Over the past 40 years, Maine people from both the public and private sectors have understood the importance of protecting the water quality of Maine’s lakes from the type of degradation that plagues so many lakes in other parts of the country. Thousands of people have helped create a safety net that has helped protect Maine’s lakes, but that safety net is not as strong as it once was, or as it needs to be to help ensure that our lakes remain as healthy as possible.
A research paper published last summer showed that the water quality of Maine’s lakes has been declining since 1995 (study attached). If this trend continues, then more Maine lakes are likely to experience significant summer algae blooms that kill fish populations, reduce shorefront property values, and make it difficult to enjoy a lake for a broad range of recreational activities—which are such an important part of the Maine experience.
The difference between a clean lake and a lake in decline is huge, as the attached photos of Cross Lake and Sabattus Pond show. Keeping Maine’s lakes clean is among the highest priority natural resources challenges that we face. Although Maine has much to be proud of in the lake water quality that we have today, this also means that we have a lot to lose through incremental degradation of water quality, invasive species infestations, and over-development of shorelines. The many key players that have a role in protecting Maine’s lakes can never walk away from this job—not our lake associations, municipalities, shorefront property owners, or the DEP.
NRCM has been strongly critical of the decline in DEP’s lake protection program that has occurred over the past few years, as described in the NRCM report Troubled Waters issued last summer. DEP’s lake protection staff and resources are at their lowest levels in years; important outreach and education work is no longer being done; and the scientific leadership that Maine once had in the field of lake protection is slipping away.
But assigning blame right now is probably not particularly helpful. Instead, this hearing provides an opportunity to focus on the value of Maine’s lakes to our economy, communities, and quality of life, and to identify further steps that are needed so that we have the strongest lake protection program possible.
We believe that each of the eight major provisions of LD 1744 has merit, but we recognize that the bill as written will need to be amended to reduce costs and make it more workable. I would like to focus on four of the bill’s provisions.
First, we strongly support development of digital photographic inventories of lake shorelines. Such images can provide the documentation of current conditions necessary to boost compliance and enforcement of shoreland zoning. A photographic record of the shoreline can help code enforcement officers determine whether violations have occurred. A photographic record such as called for by the bill already has been created for all of the Belgrade Lakes, through a collaborative project lead by Colby College. Attached are some slides from a presentation about that project,¹ which appropriately likens this work to creating a “Google Street View,” but for Maine’s Lakes.
The Colby presentation also has important information from US EPA’s National Lake Assessment, which concluded that “poor lakeshore habitat is the biggest problem in our nation’s lakes,” with poor biological health being three times more likely in lakes with poor lakeshore habitat than lakes with intact habitats.”² Maine’s mandatory shoreland zoning law has played a critical role in protecting the lakeshore habitat for our lakes. A photographic record of our shorelines can help protect the integrity of vegetated shoreland buffers moving forward. As written, this provision would be too expensive and burdensome for municipalities. We would be glad to work with the Committee on possible amendments for work session.
Second, we strongly support restricting the application of fertilizers, pesticides and other soil amendments near the shoreline. LD 1744 calls for a 25 foot ban. We encourage the Committee to explore an even larger buffer, because chemicals and nutrients applied this close to the water might just as well be poured directly into our lakes.
Third, we support the bill’s focus on the LakeSmart program, which helps shoreland property owners manage their land in a way that reduces nutrient runoff that is a persistent and compounding threat to lake water quality. We support Representative Dennis Keshl’s proposal to provide funding in the bill to the Maine Lakes Society to help with its management of the LakeSmart program.
Finally, we urge the Committee to take a close look at the staffing, resources, and responsibilities of DEP’s Lakes Assessment and Protection Program, and other supporting programs at DEP, and develop a strategy that helps strengthen the state role in lake protection. Staff vacancies, reassignments, and reduced resources all are hampering the collective efforts needed by Maine people, communities, and the DEP to do the work that needs to be done on behalf of Maine’s lakes.
In closing, we urge the Committee to pass an amended version of LD 1744, capturing the best ideas from today’s hearing. Again, thank you for this opportunity to testify, and I would be glad to answer any questions that you may have.