Equipped with $8 million in funding from the federal Department of Agriculture, the conservation group Sebago Clean Waters has set an ambitious goal to protect 10,000 acres of land throughout the Sebago Lake watershed in five years.

Sebago Lake provides drinking water for one in six Mainers, or more than 200,000 people. But development in the watershed – in the areas surrounding and upstream from the lake – put the lake’s viability as a crucial resource for Maine at risk, according to Sebago Clean Waters.

The Portland Water District and eight conservation organizations, including the Lakes Environmental Association and Loon Echo Land Trust, formed the Sebago Clean Waters in 2017.

The Portland Water District provides water service to 11 cities and towns in the Greater Portland area, including Falmouth, Raymond, Scarborough, South Portland, Standish and Windham. The district provides both water and wastewater service to Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Gorham, Portland and Westbrook, and serves more than 50,000 customers in all.

But Sebago Clean Waters’ work goes beyond the tap: Protection efforts will improve recreational opportunities such as boating to hiking; enhance water quality and clarity, which maintains the value of lakefront property and rural towns’ tax bases; and save municipalities money by taking on the financial burden of much-needed infrastructure updates.

“The overarching goal is to protect water quality (in) Sebago Lake,” said Sebago Clean Waters coordinator Karen Young. “There are many co-benefits as well. Preserving forestland would help our forest- and recreation-based economies, hunting and fishing opportunities, and support the Maine way of life.”

Sebago Clean Waters said it expects another $10.5 million in public and private funding over the next five years.

Lakes Environmental Association Executive Director Colin Holme said the Bridgton-based organization will focus on removing invasive plants in the lake and improving the areas where water heading downstream to the lake crosses roads.

Controlling and removing invasive plants, such as milfoil, means that boaters and swimmers won’t have to navigate through plant-filled waters. It also avoids the use of harmful chemical herbicides in the future.

“That water you preserve, that’s water quality and that means a better experience out on the water. Clear, cleaner water for you and your family, for everyone current and future, and that’s the big goal,” Holme said.

Lakes Environmental Association will also help municipalities upgrade culverts, which are tunnels that run beneath infrastructures, such as roads and bridges, and are meant to mimic the natural flow of water.

Many of these culverts were installed decades ago and no longer have a high enough water capacity, which can harm fish habitats and cause flooding, causing sediment and other materials to be carried to the lake, which decreases the water quality.

“I’ve seen entire roads blow out in the summer … then the road is gone and everybody is kind of trapped,” Holme said.

One of the main focuses of the initiative will be on direct conservation efforts through land trusts, led by organizations such as Loon Echo, a nonprofit organization in Bridgton.

While Executive Director Matt Markot said Loon Echo is still working out the details, it will likely include upgrading its 31-mile trail network or building new ones on one of the preserves it owns and manages in the northern Sebago Lake area, such as Pondicherry Park in Bridgton or the Raymond Community Forest.

Loon Echo will also continue working with private landowners through conservation easements and land transfers. The organization has conserved 8,000 acres of land and holds conservation easements on over 2,500 acres of property.

“This is going to enable us to protect more land for various recreational opportunities, secure access for hunting and fishing, and continue to preserve working forest land and the economic benefit that brings,” Markot said.

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