The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s reissuing this week of a license to operate Eel Weir Dam on Sebago Lake to Sappi Fine Paper is a major development for Greater Portland, which relies on drinking water from the lake.

For more than a decade, various sides have been lobbying the federal agency hoping to influence the operation of the dam, which controls the lake level. On Monday, FERC issued the long-awaited license. According to the license, which is good for 30 years, the lake-level regime appears to remain pretty much the same as it has in the recent past, with water levels to fluctuate about 4.5 feet throughout non-drought year (it used to be 9 feet). New developments, however, include eel passage at the dam, and allowing the state to decide whether fish passage is warranted.

The lake-levels debate has been a hot topic in recent years, with parties arguing that water quality is intrinsically tied to the depth of the lake. We hope the new regime will strengthen water quality of the lake. Time will tell, however.

Water quality is supremely important on Sebago Lake because for about 100 years the Portland Water District has used the lake as its main source of drinking water. Intake pipes draw water from Lower Bay into the Sebago Lake Water Treatment Facility and then into a vast distribution network that provides water for residences and businesses all over Greater Portland. There are about 300,000 people who rely on the system to provide healthy, clean water. While the lake’s water quality is still extremely good – and there’s certainly no cause for alarm – recent data have shown that one measure of water quality – clarity – is not what it once was. Clarity, which refers to the transparency of the water column, has diminished slightly during the last 10 years, according to water district scientists.

Sebago Lake is a fascinating body of water. It’s Maine’s second-largest lake and also the deepest, with Big Bay plunging to depths of about 300 feet. The problem with Sebago Lake is that it is not a natural system. The lake’s lone outlet, Eel Weir Dam, at the head of the Presumpscot River, controls the level of the lake. Operated by Sappi, based in Westbrook, the dam is regulated by FERC. For more than a decade, FERC had considered a new lake level management plan and consulting various parties to come up with something palatable to everyone.

The issue is supremely complicated since different parties benefit when the lake level is at certain heights. Simply put, there are five main interests on the lake. First, Sappi Fine Paper is interested in how the level is managed since it uses outflow to power its electricity generating stations located along the Presumpscot. Second, marinas and lakeside homeowners with docks rely on an adequate lake level in the warmer months to access their boats. They certainly don’t want to pay their high property taxes if water levels consistently fail to reach their docks. Third, the state of Maine owns popular Sebago Lake State Park, which relies on beach access as a main draw. Fourth, the Portland Water District relies on good water quality for its drinking water. Ratepayers would be asked to pay more for additional filtration methods if water quality worsens. And fifth, there are environmentalists (namely, the nonprofit Friends of Sebago Lake) and fishermen whose concerns lie in the actual health of the whole environmental system, of which Sebago Lake is a part.

With so many interests, some of which are in direct competition with others (you can’t have nice, wide beaches for sunbathers at the state park, for example, since that might mean less access to docks and marinas for boat owners), it’s no wonder FERC took so long to reissue the license. And while we’re not scientists and don’t presume to know what water-level regime would strike the right balance among all stakeholders, we do know it’s essential that water quality be first and foremost. In that regard, we hope the new plan succeeds. But if water quality suffers as a result of the new management plan, the federal agency indicates in the license that it would reconsider. That provides a welcome backstop, since this will be the law of the land (or lake, as is the case) for 30 years.

Greater Portland relies on clean water coming out of the lake. While there are definitely major economic benefits from the entire lake system, Sebago Lake’s future as a tourist destination and prime lakeside real estate hinges on its water quality. That’s what draws people to the lake, and we all benefit from it. The marinas, state park management, the water district, fishermen, the lakeside homeowners – everyone wants clean water in the end.

–John Balentine, managing editor

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