Thursday, April 24, 2014
AUGUSTA — One of Maine’s most valuable natural resources is the state’s 6,000 lakes and ponds, which are renowned for their beauty and water quality.
Don Witherill is director of the Division of Environmental Assessment in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Water Quality.
These lakes are a $3.5 billion economic engine annually that sustain 52,000 jobs, generate substantial tax revenues for towns from shoreland properties, and provide drinking water for half of all Mainers. It is their value environmentally and economically that makes protecting Maine’s lakes in perpetuity paramount for the department.
Unfortunately, a recent Natural Resources Council of Maine report has not provided a complete picture of the measures being taken by the department in pursuit of lakes protection, and in some instances, restoration.
The report implies that fewer than five staff members are now working on lake protection issues, but this is simply untrue.
What is not recognized in the report is that today, the department is organized differently than in years past. Twenty-five years ago, there were staff in a dedicated lakes division, but today, within the Division of Environmental Assessment, we have an entire Watershed Management Unit that provides support to develop and implement plans to either protect or restore water quality by working in the watersheds of lakes and streams.
There are 22 staffers who work together to provide a much stronger, more holistic program than the Natural Resources Council report would lead one to believe.
A key piece of the department’s program is the ongoing work on monitoring and assessment of lake conditions.
Our staff annually assesses the condition of lakes, both through our own monitoring and through the help of volunteers. This continues to be a high priority for us, and despite staff turnover, we have managed to meet our monitoring goals.
If a lake shows up as either threatened or impaired (not meeting water quality standards), it will likely be a priority for funding support to develop a watershed management plan, and subsequently for work to maintain or improve the lake’s water quality. To this end, we administer a grant program (Section 319 of the Clean Water Act) in which we make available to local groups annual funding of approximately $800,000 for eligible protection and restoration projects.
In addition to the staffing levels, which were incorrect, other aspects of the report are also misleading:
• The report refers to an analysis of Maine’s Shoreland Zoning Law. This was a state of Vermont analysis; therefore, it was not appropriate to include the DEP logo on it.
• The website was indeed reduced significantly in size, but the department is continuing to assess what pages are important to have available and has replaced pages in a number of instances. This process started under the previous administration and will be ongoing.
• Funding cuts that are referenced were not to the Lake Protection Fund, which is a dedicated account that was created to allow the state to accept outside donations. The 2011 cut was part of an across-the-board state government sweep of dedicated accounts and was not targeting the Aquatic Invasive Plants Program.
• While department management has requested that staff get approval to speak at outside events, such requests are routinely approved. There is not a “gag order” on staff but a coordinated and centralized approach to outreach.
• The department continues to support the Children’s Water Festival and has sought to increase support from outside organizations.
• The LakeSmart program was not terminated, but rather was transferred to the Lake Management Society (formerly the Congress of Lake Associations), which has previously collaborated with the DEP on LakeSmart. The department has been and is supportive of the organization’s efforts to secure outside grant money.
• The department continues to inform retail stores of the requirement to post signs regarding the use of fertilizer containing phosphorus. Letters and posters printed at state expense were sent to all known retailers in the spring of 2013.
We appreciate the opportunity to tell the true and complete story on our efforts to protect and improve Maine’s lakes and will continue to focus our efforts on protecting Maine’s vital natural resources and environment while ensuring a sustainable economy.
— Special to the Press Herald