October 2, 2013

Maine Voices: Health of Maine’s lakes vital to ‘quality of place,’ health and the economy

Our lakes are at risk of deterioration due to cuts in DEP staff and website records deletion.

ROCKPORT — One of the bedrock reasons we all love Maine is that our state is a beautiful, clean and safe place to live, work and play. Many people move here and stay here because of our quality of place, and hundreds of thousands more come to visit. We have worked hard to preserve this asset for future generations.

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Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, is House chair of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

So if I were to tell you that an essential piece of Maine was at risk of slipping away, would you want to protect it?

Unfortunately, Maine’s lakes are facing that very danger. Maine has about 6,000 lakes, and they have long been known nationwide for their beauty and cleanliness.

Recently an investigative report published by the Natural Resources Council of Maine found that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is putting our lakes at increased risk.

It has been cutting the Department of Environmental Protection’s lake protection staff and resources, getting rid of education and technical assistance, purging the DEP’s website of valuable public documents, interfering with the work of scientific and technical staff at the DEP and failing to enforce a Maine law that helps protect lake water quality.

The actions of the administration are causing the deterioration of Maine’s lakes. Lakes aren’t just pretty pieces of scenery to look at. More than 400,000 of us depend on lakes for drinking water. Our public health depends on us keeping that water clean and plentiful.

Right in our neighborhood is a perfect example of how important lakes are to all Maine people. Sebago Lake shares a boundary with six Maine towns – seven, if you count Frye Island. Thousands of visitors or Mainers with camps spend their dollars on lake activities and equipment, as well as at nearby hotels, restaurants and stores.

And Sebago isn’t just a regional economic engine – it also provides drinking water for 15 percent of Maine’s population. In so many ways, that lake is sustaining thousands of families. What would happen to them if we squandered that resource?

The deterioration of Maine’s lakes statewide is terrible news for Maine’s economy. The lake economy in Maine is worth $3.5 billion and employs 52,000 of our neighbors. Why would we risk throwing all that away? It’s already hard enough to find a good-paying job that can support a family. We shouldn’t be making things worse.

Maine’s sportsmen and sportswomen should also be worried. Deep reductions in DEP staff, especially knowledgeable biologists, have left lakes vulnerable to invasive species that could destroy lake ecosystems and start a chain reaction that could wipe out America’s last remaining native brook trout.

Public awareness of what’s happening to our lakes is the first big step toward preventing and reversing the damage. That’s why I was disappointed to learn that the Department of Environmental Protection had purged 80 percent of the public documents on its website.

Even if the intent was to make the site easier to navigate, there is no reason to eliminate important information that Maine people need in order to better understand good lake management and how their actions can help. Plus, having public documents on the website is an important part of transparency in government, something we Mainers all value.

We in the Legislature want very much to work with the governor’s administration to address the health of Maine’s lakes and other environmental challenges for the good of Maine people. As House chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, I value having a good working relationship with DEP leadership.

When the next legislative session starts in early January and our committee meets to talk about the challenges facing our lakes, we will once again reach out to the DEP and ask them to work with us to find common-sense solutions that will keep our lakes healthy for years to come.

It is our job as Maine’s elected officials to assure diligent oversight of our precious resources. I look forward to working with my legislative colleagues and the department to address the issues raised in this report.

— Special to the Press Herald

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