AUBURN — Officials from the Auburn Water District are again asking customers to remain patient as they continue to deal with odor and taste issues with water coming from Lake Auburn.
Superintendent Sid Hazelton of Auburn Water and Sewer said Wednesday that while calls to the water district have decreased significantly over the past week, the algae issue is the longest-lasting water issue he has experienced.
He reiterated, however, the water continues to meet state regulations and is safe to drink.
It has been more than a month since city officials first responded to the issue, which Hazelton has said is tied to a specific type of algae resulting from a hotter-than-average summer.
While the onset of cold weather is expected to eventually clear up the algae, complaints have continued. Most of those who have made complaints say the water has an odor or taste similar to cucumbers.
In an update issued by Hazelton on Tuesday, he said as the season changes, the water quality is expected to improve naturally.
“However, a specific time when this will occur is hard to predict,” he said.
The statement was posted to the district’s website and social media accounts.
He told the Sun Journal on Wednesday a team of consultants is working with the water district on potential changes to the water chemistry, but said they will need to perform a full investigation.
“Water chemistry is a very delicate thing,” Hazelton said. “If you change it to respond to one thing, you might be affecting it in another way. We have an obligation to deliver the best quality water, and we’re not going to simply experiment with the water chemistry.”
For the water district, the warm summer has led to sustained issues through the fall.
Water officials applied a dose of algaecide to the lake in September, and recently, Hazelton said, “we have seen the presence of other types of algae that have created aesthetic issues.”
For algae to thrive, he said, it needs a food source, which is primarily phosphorus that it gets from storm runoff. It also needs sunlight and warmer temperatures.
The Lake Auburn water treatment plant, which provides the drinking water for Auburn and Lewiston, was built for $11 million in 2011, and was constructed to meet federal safe water regulations.
The water is treated with chlorine and ultraviolet light for disinfection, and is adjusted for alkalinity and pH. The treatment plant also adds blended phosphate for lead control and fluoride.
Due to its historically clean water supply, the district has been granted a waiver from the Maine Drinking Water Program since 1993, allowing the district to deliver water without filtering it.
In his update Tuesday, Hazelton argued against the cost of adding a full water-filtration plant at Lake Auburn, saying that due to high costs and the potential impact on ratepayers, “it is clearly in the best interest of Auburn and Lewiston to maintain the waiver of filtration and concentrate efforts on preserving our precious water supply.”
He said recent engineering estimates have put the cost of building a filtration plant at $35 million, with annual maintenance costs of $1 million to $2 million.
If that held true, he said water rates could double or triple for area homeowners.
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said he feels the cities should explore options for water filtration. He said Wednesday alternatives could reduce the area’s reliance on the EPA to grant a waiver and help decide how high-quality water could be provided consistently to residents and businesses.
“We must recognize that providing consistent quality is a critical component to the quality of life and business in both cities,” Levesque said. “You don’t wait for your car to break down on the side of the road before buying a new one. You get proactive and make the investment before it becomes too late.”
Ed Barrett, Lewiston’s city administrator, said the city has also received calls about the water, but that the complaints seem to have decreased recently.
“The city and the Auburn Water District have worked hard to retain our exemption from the surface water filtration requirement due to the capital and operating costs associated with that treatment method,” Barrett said.
Of the filtration system, Hazelton said in the update, “Even if we were to lose our filtration waiver, or voluntarily add a filtration facility, our lake-protection efforts would continue, as algae can quickly foul conventional filter plants and add considerable expense to the treatment process.”
He said Wednesday if the local water quality were ever close to not meeting standards, discussions about a filtration plant would have to take place.
But, he said, the current water issue is “an aesthetic concern, not a health concern or a water standard concern.”
Hazelton called Lake Auburn “a fragile, precious resource that is vulnerable to environmental and man-made threats.”
He said due to the lake’s proximity to the cities, it is susceptible to pollution from runoff that can add to the phosphorus issues.
When asked about the future, and the potential for hotter summers becoming more routine, Hazelton said the data trend lines kept by the water district already show earlier “ice-outs” and later “ice-overs.”
“That’s not the greatest thing for water quality, either,” Hazelton said. “It’s more time the lake is exposed to the warm atmosphere.”
But, he said, the lake has had several good years without similar issues. The last time a stubborn algae bloom affected the taste and odor of the water was almost five years ago.
This Sun Journal file photo shows the Lake Auburn water treatment plant in 2012. Auburn Water District officials say a recent algae issue affecting the water’s odor and taste is harmless. (Sun Journal file photo)