AUGUSTA — Water system advocates said a proposal to charge Kennebec Water District customers a fee to go toward improving water quality would be an “unprecedented” change in how rates are decided at a legislative committee hearing on Thursday.

Rep. Tim Theriault, R-China, is co-sponsoring L.D. 55, “An act to provide funding for the restoration of China Lake,” which would last for 15 years.

During a legislative hearing Thursday conducted by the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, Theriault explained that the draft bill proposes to add a surcharge of $5 per year to each meter customer of the Kennebec Water District, which draws its water from China Lake.

Kirsten Hebert, executive director of the Maine Rural Water Association, called the proposal to add a fee from a third party “parasitic.”

“Rate setting is a precise and closely regulated process,” Hebert told the legislative committee. “Do not set a precedent that allows third parties to pirate an existing revenue stream.”

Steven Hudson, a lawyer with PretiFlaherty speaking on behalf of the Portland Water District, echoed what Hebert said, calling it an “unprecedented move” that could affect utilities and their ratepayers.

Jeff LaCasse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District, which serves about 30,000 customers in Waterville, Winslow, Vassalboro, Benton and Fairfield said the bill would be “taxation without representation” if enacted.

The water district has to follow a specific procedure when it increases its rates, and that includes notifying residents, he said; and customers are allowed to petition for an investigation by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

“This bill, as presented, provides none of those consumer protections,” he said.

Supporters of the bill spoke about the need to remedy the decades-long failing water quality of China Lake.

Theriault, a House member who represents China, Albion, Unity Township and part of Benton, said that while the water district has contributed $130,000 toward water quality projects, China residents have contributed more than $300,000.

The $5 fee could raise $43,000 per year, Theriault said, and the fund would be managed by the town of China and doled out for projects. While organizations that work to restore water quality, such as the China Lake Association and the China Regional Lake Alliance, sometimes win grants for projects, additional funding is always needed, he said.

Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow, co-sponsored the bill, and said she believes “it is a responsibility of those who use this resource to contribute to the upkeep of this source.”

“You want us to approve a tax that would be levied against water district customers to fund nongovernmental organizations?” Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, asked Nadeau.

“Yes, we want to keep our lakes alive,” Nadeau responded.

However, the water district asserts that it does invest money in helping the lake, even though it is not a large polluter.

Shorefront along the west basin of China Lake, located in East Vassalboro, is owned by the water district, which forested the area in the 1910s to protect the lake from runoff. With the increase of residential development in the 1980s in the east basin of the lake, runoff and phosphorous has seeped in, spawning algae blooms and earning China Lake the title of an “impaired waterbody” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The water district commissions studies and works on programs to help water quality mostly in the east basin, LaCasse said, because that’s where the problems are.

“It’s my opinion that we’ve been most responsible for protecting the lake,” he said.

In addition, the water district was forced to install a full treatment facility in 1993 because of the poor water quality, which has left the district with some debt passed on to customers. The Kennebec Water District has one of the highest rates of utilities throughout the state.

While those on the water district board of trustees who spoke against the bill said they don’t oppose the legislation’s goal of improving China Lake, they questioned the proposal’s vague wording — to “restore the water quality” — as there are a number of different opinions from different organizations in the area about what actions would best do that.

Some were also against how the bill suggested the goal be funded.

“I don’t see much difference between this and a toll on Route 9,” said Allen Fuller, who represents Benton on the board of trustees, referring to the road that intersects with Route 202 near the head of China Lake. “This is an incredibly slippery slope. It really is like the toll road. You happen to pass through China, and we’re going to charge you some money.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour