The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is systematically and deliberately dismantling successful programs designed to protect Maine’s lakes, environmental advocates said Tuesday.
In a 14-page report, the Natural Resources Council of Maine documents several criticisms of the DEP, including cuts in staffing and funding for lake protection.
Internal emails and audits of staffing and departmental activities demonstrate a pattern in the DEP to disrupt and eliminate lake water-quality programs and impede collaboration with academic, scientific and public information efforts, the report says.
“There has been a significant decline in what was once the crown jewel of Maine,” its lakes and lake protection programs, said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Didisheim said DEP staffing and funding for lake protection is at the lowest level in decades. Vacant positions have not been filled, the DEP’s Lake Protection Fund has been cut from $144,000 to $122,000, and in 2011 about $34,000 that was earmarked for invasive-plant management was transferred to the general fund.
The report, “Troubled Waters: Damage to Maine’s Lake Protection Program Under the LePage Administration,” was written to address practices in the DEP that the environmental group says have put unreasonable constraints on the environmental protection of the state’s lakes, Didisheim said.
“There can always be some improvements,” said Jessamine Logan, director of communications for the DEP, but the department is making progress with lake water quality.
“Seven hundred acres of lakes have improved their water quality in the last two years,” she said.
The message of the council’s report was supported by Matt Scott, the retired chief biologist for the DEP who created the department’s lakes program in the 1970s.
Scott said the state has stepped back from its commitment to lakes by vastly reducing staffing and by reorganizing and refocusing the state’s environmental work.
According to the report, the DEP once had 6.5 positions dedicated to lake protection, support from the staff in shoreland zoning and the Natural Resources Protection Act programs, a lakes education position and an AmeriCorps volunteer for lake education and school programs.
The staff is now down to a full-time biologist, a biologist who works part-time on lakes protection and a part-time conservation aide who is shared with the marine program, the report says. Vacant positions have not been filled and staff members who worked in the lakes program have been reassigned.
The AmeriCorps position was also eliminated under the Le- Page administration.
Scott said, “DEP was the leader in the lakes program in the beginning, (but) the department is not focusing on lakes and the lakes program (now), because they don’t have the staff.”
An early investigation into the details of the report showed that some of the information portrayed DEP decisions and actions in a light that does not reflect reality, Logan said.
“Some things are just factually incorrect,” she said. “Some … are out of context.”
The report, she said, does not reflect the DEP’s interaction and public participation. She pointed to its work with the Cooperative Extension Service, the Lakes Environmental Association and the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program as examples.
Cuts to lake programs have occurred before, in part because environmental advocacy for Maine’s 5,000 lakes is not as strong as that for marine and coastal programs and sportsmen’s concerns, said Peter Lowell, executive director of the 1,200-member Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton.
“This is not the first time this has happened; it’s not the first time the lakes have been singled out,” Lowell said. “But this is the most extensive dismantling. I think it started as a shrink-government kind of role (in the DEP). I don’t think the government set out to ruin Maine’s lakes.”
The report follows a seven-month investigation by Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that showed that DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho, a former industrial and corporate lobbyist, has scuttled programs and fought against laws that were opposed by many of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil and real estate development industries.
“Yes, she was a former lobbyist,” said Logan, but such a background is not new or inherently problematic for state officials.
The DEP is “trying to make it easier for businesses or those who must be in compliance,” Logan said, and doing so can mean that environmental ends are served, not derailed.
“We can be open to the regulated community about their concerns and develop a partnership.”
In June, the University of Maine released a study showing that water quality in Maine lakes has deteriorated since 1995.
Water clarity, a strong indicator of quality, is deteriorating in Maine lakes, according to research by Ian McCullough, an ecologist who is now in a doctoral program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Using satellite-based remote sensing, McCullough found that lake water clarity that ranged from 4 to 6 meters from 1995 to 2010 worsened during the last five years of monitoring.
The deterioration may be a trend toward eutrophication — a process in which excess nitrates and phosphates, generally caused by fertilizers and sewage, stimulate growth of algae, which depletes oxygen in the water, the report said.
McCullough found that clarity was reduced disproportionately — in 52 of 63 lakes — in larger bodies of water in the remote northeastern and western regions of the state. Climate changes that affect algae growth and changes in forest cover caused by timber harvesting also may have contributed to the decline in those regions, he said.
“The decline of lake water quality should make us very nervous,” Didisheim said. “Our lakes are the envy of the rest of the U.S.”
Maine’s lakes, and the activities associated with them, are estimated to generate $3.5 billion a year and help sustain 52,000 jobs, according to the DEP.
The group’s report is online at www.nrcm.org.
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