Sometimes, less isn’t more. According to some, that’s the case this fall on Sebago Lake.

Marina owners on the lake are feeling not only the lingering pinch of a rainy summer and sagging economy, but also deep frustration caused by federal and state agencies who, they say, continue to impose an ineffective and unnatural lake level management plan for Maine’s second-largest lake.

Earlier this month, officials from Sappi Fine Paper opened the gates wider at the Eel Weir Dam, which as the lone outlet on Sebago Lake, controls the level of the lake. The Westbrook paper mill, which is licensed to operate five hydroelectric dams on the Presumpscot River, started lowering the level of Sebago Lake in compliance with a federal plan that mandates lower lake levels each winter.

According to hydropower specialist Dana Murch, of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the basic premise of the management plan is to reduce water levels to 262.5 feet above sea level each winter to reduce erosion of Sebago Lake’s beaches and waterfront properties. In the springtime and summer months, after the threats posed by ice are past, water levels are allowed to rise to approximately 266.5 feet, known as “full pond,” which allows better access to docks as well as safer boating since rocks and sand bars are more deeply submerged.

This fall and winter, however, Sappi is lowering the lake level even further, to 261 feet above sea level, to comply with the federal plan. The plan, established by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1994, calls for the 261-foot level two out of every nine years to replicate drought cycles, which is said to restore wetlands and beaches.

However, in the past 14 years, because of high precipitation in the fall, Sappi has only been successful in reducing the level of Sebago Lake to the 261-foot wintertime target twice. Therefore, over the course of the next four years, according to Murch, Sappi will attempt to meet the 261-foot level each year until they are successful.

As of Tuesday, the lake level was 263.3 feet above sea level, meaning Sappi still has another 2.3 feet to go to reach the target.

Some say the plan’s all wet

In late September, Sappi sent out a letter informing marina owners that lake levels would begin dropping Oct. 1. The lower-than-usual lake level is a hardship for marina owners, they say, since less water means shallower depths at the edge of the lake, resulting in a shortened boating season.

Perhaps the marina most affected by the drawdown is Sebago Lake Marina on the lake’s western shore. For the last 25 years – as long as he’s owned the marina – Charlie Frechette has been fighting different iterations of the lake level management plan, which he says is harmful to the quality of the water as well as businesses on the lake.

“The idea is to reach natural levels on Sebago. That’s what this plan is supposed to do. You tell me, in a year where we’ve had so much rain, the ‘summer with no beginning’ as I call it, what’s so natural about replicating a drought year on Sebago?” Frechette said last week while he and his employees prematurely pulled boats from the marina’s docks in order to prevent any from getting stuck in the shallow water.

Frechette’s also attributes the spread of milfoil on the lake to the current lake level management plan.

“In Long Lake, there is no milfoil. Their lake levels fluctuate a mere 8 inches throughout the year,” Frechette said. “But on Big Sebago, where we see drastic lake level changes of 5 or 6 feet, we’ve got a real milfoil problem. There’s a correlation, but nobody’s willing to acknowledge it.”

Perhaps his biggest concern is the economy of Sebago Lake. He said the boating-related industry around the lake takes in about $17 million a year, compared to $8 million from the various state-run beaches on Sebago. Having to contend with lower water levels in the fall shortens the boating season and makes boat owners think twice about docking their boats in Sebago, he said.

“One of the key issues here is that the state wants to lower lake levels in order to restore their beaches, namely Tassel Top in Raymond and Sebago Lake State Park. They are so blindfolded in their desire to do this that they are forgetting the boating industry. For our economy up here, boating is huge,” Frechette said, adding, “Can you imagine the city of Portland ignoring the benefits of the cruise ship industry? It’s the same thing.”

Frechette’s not the only marina owner unhappy with this fall’s attempt at lowering the lake to 261 feet. Rob Soucy, owner of Port Harbor Marine at Jordan Bay Marina in Raymond, is likewise frustrated by having to pull boats earlier than usual.

“The bigger boats present more of a challenge for us at lower water levels,” Soucy said. “Our ramp needs deep water. Too low and we couldn’t do it, and the customers may get stuck. So, it definitely has an effect on those customers. It shortens their season.”

Having been involved in the process for many years, Richardson’s Boat Yard owner Jeff Richardson is also fed up, saying, “The whole thing is stupid.”

“To me, the idea of drawing down the lake two in nine (years) is crazy, it’s never been done before in the history of the lake … They’re messing with this lake. It’s better left to nature,” said Richardson, whose boatyard is located in the Sebago Lake Basin near North Windham.

Richardson doesn’t believe lowering water levels restores the beaches, either.

“There’s no such thing as anti-gravitational sand. I can’t understand how the sand is supposed to miraculously climb back up on the beach. It seems to me the opposite would be true. If the water levels were higher in the winter, the ice would push sand back up. That would make better sense,” he said.

Murch, of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said his department is the entity which ultimately determines what water levels are needed to meet water quality standards, “and it’s up to FERC to decide how to balance all the competing needs and interests,” he said.

Murch said a re-licensing of the Eel Weir Dam by the federal regulatory commission has been delayed because the state has been unable to complete a study of Sebago Lake’s water quality as well as flow requirements in the Presumpscot River. Once that study is completed, which Murch noted “is not imminent,” the federal commission will publish an updated water level management plan to govern lake levels for the next 30-50 years.

“It’s been a long slog,” Murch said. “We’ve had two people who were working on this model retire. It’s been a long process to say the least.”

As part of the state’s as-yet-unfinished review of the lake level’s impact on the ecology and quality of the lake, Murch said the department is “still evaluating” whether low water levels actually restore beaches. He also said the state is still investigating whether high water levels are ruining the wetlands, especially in the northwest corner of the lake.

Wetlands protection is a prime concern for Friends of Sebago Lake, another long-time player in the lake levels saga. President Roger Wheeler contends that the drastic reduction in water quality in recent years – backed up by Portland Water District water quality studies – is due to high water levels, which he said is reducing the effectiveness of wetlands to filter incoming pollutants like phosphorus.

“When you keep the water high throughout the summer and don’t allow for seasonal fluctuations, as is currently the case, it changes the geochemistry of the lake, especially the wetlands. It changes the soil, the plants, the whole system. And the wetlands no longer function as a filter. Instead, they become exporters of nutrients,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said his organization “accepts high water levels” as well as the practice of lowering the lake to 261 feet every two out of nine years to simulate drought conditions. However, he wishes the plan would go further.

“It should revert back to the way it was historically. One year the lake would be low, the next it would be high, depending on the amount of precipitation,” Wheeler said. “Right now, seasonal water levels are consistent.”

The state’s delay in producing a recommendation regarding a water level that would protect water quality in Sebago Lake and the Presumpscot River has been a “blessing” for Wheeler’s group, since it’s given them time to petition the federal energy regulatory commission regarding new studies the group says show diminished water quality on Sebago Lake. Friends of Sebago Lake sent a letter to the federal commission last month that requested a total re-evaluation of the lake level management plan, based on the new water quality reports, something they couldn’t have done had the state already submitted its proposal.

“This is zero hour for Sebago Lake. This is the most important year, because once the license from FERC is finalized, that’s it for 30 or 50 years,” Wheeler said.

Whatever ultimately happens with lake levels, John Boland, the fisheries division director for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and an expert regarding Sebago Lake, having spent 18 years on the lake as a fisheries biologist, said a few feet difference in water levels has little effect on fish.

Lower water levels on Sebago Lake “will have little, if any implications on fish. It’s a deep lake with plenty of rocky shoreline,” Boland said.

That’s good news to fishermen, except those who fish the Presumpscot River in North Windham, where the excess water flows from Eel Weir Dam.

“One of the best places to fish for brook trout is on the river just below the (Eel Weir) dam (on Route 35). We stock a lot of fish there but when it flows so much, as it does during these draw-downs, it can be too high to fish, so that can impact fishermen,” he said.

Boland added that if the fish aren’t caught, they have little chance of surviving the winter, resulting in significant die-offs.

“Then it’s just a waste of time and money on (the department of) fish and wildlife’s part,” he said.

Charles Frechette, iin boat, and Tyler Emery started early this year pulling boats out of slips at Sebago Lake Marina in East Sebago. Because of a warning issued by Sappi, controller of the Eel Weir Dam which regulates the water level of Sebago Lake, the marina’s owner Charlie Frechette decided he had no choice but to haul the boats in early. (Staff photo by John Balentine)


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