WESTBROOK – In its latest State of the Lake report, the Portland Water District has endorsed a lake-level management plan for Sebago Lake that would more closely mimic how the lake was managed decades ago.

The proposed plan calls for more fluctuating levels, tied to precipitation, throughout the year.

The depth of Sebago Lake, the second largest lake in Maine, is controlled by the Eel Weir Dam, located at the head of the Presumpscot River, which flows to the ocean through Gorham, Standish, Windham, Westbrook and Falmouth. The lake is a regional asset as both southern Maine’s source of drinking water and as an attraction for tourists.

Management of the dam, built to its current height in 1884, is the responsibility of Westbrook-based Sappi Fine Paper. Since the company owns and operates several electrical power plants along the river, it must receive a license to manage the dam by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The 30-year license expired in 2004 and Sappi has been operating under a provisional license since then while a new management plan is debated.

In July 2011, as part of the ongoing negotiations of how best to manage the lake to appease all parties, which include marina owners, lakeside homeowners, the environmental watchdog group Friends of Sebago Lake and the Maine Department of Environment Protection, Sappi proposed a major change in how it would operate the dam. Rather than artificially keeping lake levels between 262 and 266 feet above sea level, the proposed change would focus on producing uniform outflows of 16,500 cubic feet of water per minute through the Eel Weir Dam and into the Presumpscot River.

Under the new scheme, the lake would rise higher in periods of significant rain or melting snowpack, while in periods of drought, the lake would be lower, mimicking a more natural cycle.

The Portland Water District, in its 2012 State of the Lake report issued last month, supported the proposed management plan based on uniform outflows. The district based its finding on how the change would benefit the health of the Presumpscot River, which usually slows to a trickle in the summer, stagnating the downstream flow and potentially harming aquaculture.

The district backs the proposal “because there is no evidence that it would negatively impact lake water quality and because it would release more oxygen-rich water to the Presumpscot River during the summer months when the river can experience low oxygen levels,” the report indicated.

District spokeswoman Michelle Clements confirmed the report was the first time the water district publicly backed the new lake level management plan, a move not lost on Roger Wheeler, president of Friends of Sebago Lake.

“They’ve never publicly said anything about water level management, so this is a big deal that they would come out and support it,” Wheeler said.

While not focused on the Presumpscot, Wheeler is mostly concerned with the health of the lake, which he said has been deteriorating since 1986 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed lake levels to rise to appease marina owners, who need uniform higher levels for business reasons. Wheeler has been urging the regulatory commission decision-makers to consider revising the management plan for years. He argues that consistently high Sebago Lake water levels damage wetlands and cause erosion, both of which lead to lower water quality.

“The future of Sebago Lake is hanging in the balance here. Why this is beneficial is because you’ll get more fluctuation. You need those higher highs and lower lows, so Sappi’s new plan is more like it used to be, which is what we want to see,” Wheeler said.

Charles Frechette, owner of Sebago Lake Marina in Sebago, has been outspoken in his defense of uniform water levels and has lodged an appeal against Sappi’s new proposal. Frechette questions the science of Wheeler’s proposal that fluctuating water levels aid water quality and is a major proponent of businesses on the lake that rely on non-fluctuating water levels, especially in the summer when boating season is in full swing. Frechette did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

The water district’s report also supports Sappi’s proposed plan, which has also been endorsed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, saying it would provide simpler guidelines for managing the lake that is already complicated and often impossible to follow due to natural rain cycles.

Since 1997 when the new management plan went into effect calling for specific depth targets, the mill has had to drop the lake to 262.5 feet (above sea level) by Nov. 1. Between May 1 and June 15, Sappi has had to raise the lake to 266.65 feet, known as full pond. The lower level in the winter helps prevent ice damage on the shoreline. Higher levels in the summer allow for better access to boat slips and docks for lakeside homeowners and marinas.

According to the district’s report, “Under this license, [the mill] must follow a Lake Level Management Plan which requires them to increase or decrease outflow from the dam in order to keep the lake within specific lake level ranges throughout the year. It has been difficult for them to comply with the LLMP. Over the past four years they have been out of compliance 32 out of 108 weeks.”

Sappi has also been unable to meet another requirement of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license requiring the lake to be drawn down to 261 feet above sea level between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 every two out of nine years. According to Wheeler, in the last 15 years, Sappi has only managed to hit the required depth one time. Wheeler said fall rains and drawdown of upstream lakes, such as Long Lake in Naples and Highland Lake in Bridgton, usually hamper Sappi’s efforts to reduce the lake’s depth.

The new plan should be more manageable, water district officials argue.

“The new plan gives more flexibility and greater odds of compliance,” Clements said.

Brad Goulet, hydro manager for Sappi Fine Paper North America, commented on the water district’s recent support saying, “Sappi greatly appreciates the support of the Portland Water District. We are happy to continue working with the Portland Water District to preserve the watershed of Sebago Lake and the water quality of the Presumpscot River.”

As the lone outlet of Sebago Lake, the Eel Weir Dam controls lake levels. Those levels, which have remained relatively constant since 1986 compared with historical data, could return to a more fluctuating level if a new management plan is adopted. The plan has been endorsed by the Portland Water District. (File photo)

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