September 13, 2013

Maine Voices: DEP delays, misguided policies cause harm to Maine's lakes

The agency's promotion of unnaturally high lake levels may be what's hindering dam relicensing efforts.

By ROGER WHEELER

FRYEBURG - In the Portland Press Herald's Aug. 28 story titled "More dam relicensing slips past Maine DEP," the motives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection are called into question.

The DEP has failed to file water quality certification for several important federal dam relicensings, resulting in Maine citizens losing control of jurisdiction over native fish restoration, water levels and dam outflows, etc.

The Portland Press Herald paraphrases Mark Bergeron, DEP land resource division director, explaining why the agency made such an error: "Bergeron said his division was understaffed and that he and (DEP hydropower coordinator Kathy) Howatt were overwhelmed by another project assembling documents related to a disputed Sebago Lake weir for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court."

There are 2,000 documents in the DEP file for Sebago Lake. Some provide lengthy, highly technical evidence and data on the impacts of the DEP's 1997 lake-level plan, which has eroded beaches and shorelines, degraded water quality and harmed lake ecosystems, with impacts all the way to coastal waters.

The Bergeron excuse is the smoking gun that exposes the mother of all relicensing failures of past DEP leadership to uphold the public trust that they will fulfill their sworn duties and protect Maine's waterways.

Sebago Lake's relicensing is DEP's own self-created worst nightmare, and Bergeron perhaps is trying to tell us that.   

The Sebago Lake dam, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission project, is waiting for the commission to issue a license. In 2011, the state issued its required water quality certification, verifying that the project would not violate water quality standards. It was eight years late! 

With a lake that supplies drinking water to a good percentage of the state's population -- and all while one of the world's once-finest inland public beaches is being further decimated by erosion -- the DEP's excuses for repeatedly delaying its Sebago Lake water quality certification have to be questioned.

One would imagine that by 2005, the issuance of more than 100 costly DEP permits to landowners desperate to protect their property with the placement of boulder and rock armoring along recently eroded shorelines would send a signal that issuing a scientifically sound DEP water quality certification should have utmost priority.

In September 2011, Douglas Watts of Augusta filed a lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court against the DEP's water quality certification for Sebago Lake, claiming that it violates state law and the federal Clean Water Act. A Superior Court judge heard oral arguments on the case July 31; the decision is pending. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will not issue a license while the water quality certification is under a court challenge.

If the DEP had filed its water quality certification by 2005, the license would have been issued and the agency would not have had to spend 18 months using valuable manpower preparing a legal defense for a water quality certification that conflicts with state and federal law.

The DEP has failed to educate the public -- especially our elected officials -- of the harmful impacts of unnatural freshwater flow and fragmentation of fisheries ecosystems. The DEP file on Sebago Lake and other bodies of water, like China Lake, are evidence of its prior knowledge of the damage to lakes that its policies cause.

The DEP's promotion and defense of unnatural water flow with the constant high lake levels it mandates are perhaps one key reason why relicensings are now difficult for the agency. These dam relicensings are held hostage by special interests that demand and have come to expect constant high lake levels in the spring, summer and fall and a reduced fluctuation range, eliminating critical natural variability.

The DEP's history of acquiescing to misinformation, ignoring scientific information and squelching inquiry about unnatural freshwater flow impacts has created an environment where open, informative communication is non-existent.

This was made recently evident by eight legislators asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, on behalf of a local special interest group, to further increase Sebago Lake lake-level targets and reduce the lake-level fluctuation range.

These legislators know nothing of the harmful impacts of what they are asking for. News media could serve Maine and the nation well to focus on the Sebago Lake dam relicensing and the journey through the courts of the case Watts v. Maine DEP.

The tenets and laws of the Clean Water Act are at risk if the Watts appeal is denied or local legislators have their way. The public should be aware of the consequences.

Roger Wheeler is a resident of Fryeburg and president of Friends of Sebago Lake.

 

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