With recent flooding rains, life on Sebago Lake has been a battle against rising water levels for many lakeside landowners who depend on Sappi Fine Paper’s management of the Eel Weir Dam, which regulates the lake’s water level.

A Sebago Lake cottage owner contends S.D. Warren, a subsidiary of SAPPI, of disregarding this spring’s high water levels that he says led directly to severe erosion of Sebago’s lakefront.

Ted Tibbals, owner of a north-facing cottage on Sebago Lake’s west side, says that the high water levels, exacerbated by strong winds, caused significant erosion to his embankment and deposited about four cubic yards of debris in his yard.

“The waves washed halfway up several lots, including ours,” Tibbals said. The debris these waves left behind included an uprooted tree about five inches in diameter.

Tibbals blames S.D. Warren and their management of the Eel Weir Dam for the destruction. In accordance with S.D. Warren’s current Lake Level Management Plan (LLMP), and in adherence to guidelines set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), gates to the dam must be managed to maintain a water level with a flowage easement not to exceed 267.15 feet.

“The paper mill was not using any foresight in opening the dam gates,” said Tibbals. “If some of the people that made these decisions were from this state, they would have done things differently.”

Roger Wheeler, president of Friends of Sebago Lake and a fellow Sebago Lake property owner, shares Tibbals’ alarm. Not only has he seen the devastating effects of these high levels on his property, but Wheeler sees their effects on the quality of Sebago’s beaches as well.

“Sebago Lake used to possess the finest inland beaches in the country,” said Wheeler. “They’re now gone. We’re losing a unique resource.”

But not everyone agrees that these high levels pose a threat.

“You shouldn’t be managing the lake for the beaches,” said Charlie Frechette, owner of Sebago Lake Marina.

Frechette wrote S.D. Warren an email congratulating them on the amazing job they did managing the dam this spring with all the rainfall.

“People have been encroaching on the lake,” Frechette said. “If you build on a sandy slope, you’d better anticipate that at some point you will have to do something. Gravity always wins.”

While some may charge owners of lakefront property with selfish motivation – potential harm to their property and loss of its aesthetic value – the concerns of many of these owners go much deeper.

Friends of Sebago Lake (FOSL) is a watchdog organization with the goal of protecting Sebago Lake by returning it to a pre-1987 water level management strategy and promoting stewardship of the lake to provide long-term benefits for its water quality and ecosystem.

FOSL believes that, unless the LLMP, amended in 1997, is adjusted to conform to the 100-year historic average for Sebago Lake, erosion will continue and restoration of the natural beaches of Sebago to their former size and condition will not be possible.

But the group is distressed not only by the massive amounts of erosion but by the consequences that erosion will have on the lake’s water quality as well. They have witnessed and photographed plumes of turbidity, which, according to the group, contain phosphorus that contribute toward algae blooms, and to reduced water clarity and quality.

The Portland Water District (PWD) disputes the assertion that erosion has been detrimental to the water supply. “We continue to test the water for such things as turbidity and have not seen a change,” said Michelle Clements, PWD’s public relations manager.

Although they are concerned about the high water mark, the PWD cites run-off from the heavy rains as the real water quality culprit. “We do not manage the lake level. Sappi has a license from FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to do so,” Clements said. “At this time, FERC has asked Sappi for an explanation to their lake level management response. We are holding back on making any kind of judgment or action until we hear from Sappi what the particulars are behind this issue.”

The PWD may not have to hold back much longer. In a May 27 reply to FERC’s request for an explanation of S.D. Warren’s response to overages this spring, Thomas Howard, environmental manager of Sappi, acknowledged, “the level of Sebago Lake exceeded the upper limit of the target range in April/May, 2005; however, as of May 26, 2005, the lake level is below the upper limit of the [Lake Level Management] Plan.”

Howard outlined the weather conditions and the ensuing actions they precipitated. On March 22, the lake bottomed out at 262.17 feet. At this time they reduced the outflow to 20,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm), about four and a half feet below the spillway crest, to avoid the possibility of a summer drought.

The lake level experienced a large rise during the first two weeks of April with over four and a half inches of rain between March 28 and April 3. The company responded by increasing the outflow to 60,000 cfm. As the third week in April showed a decrease in the rate of rise and, because there had been no rain for two weeks, the outflow was decreased to 40,000 cfm.

The problem, according to Howard, occurred during the last 10 days of April when the Lakes Region area received nearly six and a half inches of rain. Anticipating the rise in water level, the company increased the flows to 100,000 cfm on April 26, 190,000 cfm on April 27, and to 210,000 cfm on April 29. The outflow remained at this highest point until May 13.

Dana Murch of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) uses the analogy of a funnel to explain the problem. Sebago Lake can be compared to the wide end of the funnel, with the Eel Weir Dam at Sebago’s outlet its spout. When a liquid is poured into a funnel, the spout cannot release it quickly enough to prevent the funnel from overflowing.

In other words, even with the dam gates completely open, the passage created is not large enough to handle the incredible volume of water trying to push through from Sebago, as well as from Long Lake and Brandy Pond.

But others believe that S.D. Warren should have acted in anticipation of possible spring precipitation by allowing a greater outflow of water earlier. In addition, as evidenced by the company’s failure to regulate the flowage easement on three occasions since the implementation of the LLMP in April, 1997, many believe that the only adequate long-term solution is to lower the target level.

Stephen Kasprzak wrote the FERC three times in May, 2005, noting S.D. Warren’s infringement and documenting evidence of its adverse impact along the shoreline of Sebago Lake.

In his letter dated May 5, Kasprzak said: “It is obvious that the existing (plan) has failed to protect Sebago Lake property owners from S.D. Warren trespassing its flowage easements, and S.D. Warren does not have adequate hydraulic capacity at the Eel Weir to prevent trespass of the easements during periods of modest precipitation or to lower lake levels to normal elevations on a timely basis. The only way to resolve this issue is to lower the LLMP to more closely reflect the historic median (1910-86) instead of targeting lake levels to be 1.5 to 2.5 feet above the median.”

S.D. Warren is awaiting FERC’s decision to grant them a new 30 to 50-year license for the Eel Weir Project. The next step in the licensing process is an Environmental Assessment. According to Murch of the DEP, this reviews the impacts of possible alternative water management plans. The assessment is expected to be out sometime this year.

This photograph, taken May 9 of this year, shows the erosion along the shoreline of Long Point. According to Stephen Kasprzak, the erosion occurred

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