March 3, 2010

Plan to settle disputes over lake levels raises ire

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Critics of the state's management of lake water levels said Friday that a new state proposal could effectively shut the door on some appeals.

The Department of Environmental Protection wants to change the law that outlines how to settle disputes over state-managed lake levels, a source of controversy around some impounded lakes that goes back decades.

If the proposal is passed, citizens' petitions to lower or raise water levels would no longer automatically prompt formal legal hearings before the Board of Environmental Protection, an independent panel that handles complex disputes.

Instead, the DEP would hold less formal public meetings, and its commissioner could require that petitioners first try mediation and provide evidence of a problem.

''Many of these issues should be put forward for mediation or dispute resolution before they come to us,'' said Andrew Fisk, director of the DEP's Bureau of Land and Water Quality.

Fisk said the changes would cut costs for the state and make the process simpler for citizens. Decisions could still be appealed to the board, he said.

Several critics told the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee on Friday that the DEP has long overlooked the environmental and property damage caused by high water at China Lake and other lakes. This proposal will make it even harder to fix those problems, they said.

''If we leave the DEP in charge of this, I fear it's going to be the end of legitimate hearings for China Lake,'' said Al Althenn, who petitioned twice to lower the lake's water levels during the past 13 years. Hearings were held, but the board decided against Althenn.

''It just seems like another way (for the DEP) to get out of their duty to act as stewards for the lakes' ecology and environment,'' said Maxine Pray of Winslow. ''It's all set up so an average, everyday citizen can't get anywhere with this issue.''

Pray said she and others have been fighting artificially high water levels in China Lake, Sebago Lake and other water bodies for decades.

Sebago, like China Lake, has been the focus of a long-running tug of war over water levels, and the DEP is now reviewing the lake's management plan.

Sebago would not be directly affected by the proposed legislation. Appeals in that case have to go through a separate process because the outlet dam that controls Sebago's level is federally licensed.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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