AUBURN — Dan Bilodeau stands on Whitman Spring Road, about 100 yards above Lake Auburn, and counts the things the lake represents for him.
It's a recreation magnet, drawing summer boaters to its waters, and hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers to its shores.
It's a real estate engine, too, he said, bringing people to Auburn to build their homes.
"It's a huge, beautiful asset," he said. "That's why I built my home here. It's why all my neighbors built here."
But the lake is also the drinking water supply for most Lewiston and Auburn residents. That fact has bred a 100-plus-year philosophy that swimming, development and the like could threaten the quality of the lake's precious drinking water.
Today, that philosophy is embodied in a Twin Cities coalition working to control the land around Lake Auburn and all of the streams, ponds and groundwater that feed it. Now 17 years old, the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission controls 9,651 acres in Auburn, Turner, Minot, Hebron and Buckfield.
But as the city of Auburn writes a new Comprehensive Plan to guide planning decisions for the next decade, Bilodeau wonders if watershed protection has run its course, if it's time to consider changing watershed rules and easing lakeside development standards.
"Maybe it's time to take another look at the lake and use it to its full potential," Bilodeau said. "It will never be a Sebago Lake. It's just not big enough. But can you imagine how nice it would be to have a little swimming beach on one side?"
Overall, the commission — authorized by the two cities — owns or controls 14 percent of the total land within watershed boundaries and 81 percent of shoreland around Lake Auburn itself. It encourages member cities and towns to enforce strict land-use rules for the land it does not own and provides water quality education for residents.
Bilodeau, who owns 24 acres west of Lake Auburn’s northern tip, has been a critic of the watershed and Auburn’s land-use rules for years.
“What started it was the septic system rules,” Bilodeau said. Those rules require home builders to site septic system drainage fields on land with at least 36 inches of original topsoil, much more than is necessary, he said. That caused the price of his new home’s septic system to balloon from $10,000 to $40,000, he said.
Bilodeau has also battled the watershed group over recreational use of land and trails bordering his property.
With the city poised to approve a new comprehensive plan that, Bilodeau fears, would further entrench the commission's rules, he has inspired Auburn City Councilor Mike Farrell, the city's appointee to the watershed commission, to begin asking some questions of his own.
"I think things like this, they all start out with the best of intentions, but they end up being fire-breathing monsters," Farrell said, referring to the commission's growing control over Lake Auburn and the land surrounding it. Farrell said he understands that the watershed group wants to protect the Twin Cities' drinking water, but he worries that its land-use policies and land-acquisition program hurt Auburn taxpayers.
"My biggest problem is, this is a government program that just doesn't seem to end," Farrell said. "At some point, does it stop? I think they've put in enough limits that Lake Auburn is safe and they don't need to keep going. So, why not stop?"
The cities have worked to protect the lake's water quality from the very beginning, starting with a "No Bathing" ban in 1877. Since the early 1900s, the Auburn Water District and the city of Lewiston's Water Department have purchased land around the lake to protect it from development, patrolled its shores and tested the water's quality.
That resulted in a 1991 federal waiver from having to filter Lake Auburn's water before sending it along to residents. Part of the Environmental Protection Agency's Safe Drinking Water Act required many water utilities to use filtration processes to clean up drinking water. Lake Auburn's water was deemed clean enough to avoid having to pay to filter its water.
That saved the two cities millions of dollars, said John Storer, superintendent of the Auburn Water District and staff for the watershed commission. A 2005 study of Lake Auburn's compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act determined that it could cost between $25 million and $50 million to begin filtering Lake Auburn's water. With the waiver in place, the cities could continue to chemically disinfect their drinking water with chlorine and ammonia instead of having to build a costly filtration plant.
The key is protecting the watershed, Storer said.
“The basic rule of thumb in water treatment is that it’s cheaper to keep your water clean at the source than it is to let it get dirty and go back and clean it up,” he said. The Auburn Water District and city of Lewiston formed the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission in 1993 to protect the watershed even more.
“We’re not trying to change much, just encourage the way people build,” Storer said. “We favor low-impact development that won’t create the runoff (and other pollutants that could end up in the lake).”
The commission's management plan, released in April, includes several recommendations for encouraging green, watershed-friendly development and educating residents. But it also includes a recommendation to spend up to $250,000 a year to acquire sensitive land — especially parcels with Lake Auburn frontage and along Townsend Brook and The Basin, the pond at the northern tip of Lake Auburn.
One parcel the watershed commission was interested in was the former Auburn Land Lab — an environmental learning facility for Auburn schools — at the corner of Holbrook and Auburn roads. The city sold the 2.3 acre lot in April and it’s being developed as a single-family home.
“When the Land Lab was there, we had an agreement that they could use trails on watershed lands,” Storer said. “That kind of recreational trail use was something we like to promote, so if we acquired that land, we would have used it for parking for people using those trails.”
But the City Council sold the lot before the watershed group could react.
“We had an offer in front of us, and it made sense,” Auburn Councilor Farrell said. “We didn’t see a reason to wait.”
Storer said he understands.
“The commission only meets every two months, so we didn’t have time to formalize a bid,” he said. “And I do understand that some people in the community dislike turning private land into nontaxable, public lands.”
Farrell said he's one of those people.
“What that does is take more and more land out of the private sector, meaning there are fewer people paying property taxes,” said Farrell, who owns a 6-acre parcel in the watershed, north of the lake on Beaver Road.
Bilodeau argues that filtration isn’t as expensive as the 2005 report says.
“The technology has moved on,” he said.
Federal rules in 2006 required all drinking water utilities to have at least two treatment methods. Lewiston and Auburn water officials currently use chlorine and ammonia as the main disinfectant and began work last summer adding an ultraviolet facility as their second method. That $7.7 million facility is scheduled to come on line early in 2011.
Based on the 2005 study, it made the most sense, Storer said.
Aqua Maine, the privately owned utility that supplies drinking water to Camden and Rockport, faced the same choice. In 2009, owners opted to begin construction of a $7 million filtration plant. Rick Knowlton, vice president of operations at Aqua Maine, said the plant uses membranes to filter water in a way that wasn't available before 2006.
"It was technology that was used privately, by beverage industries and pharmaceutical manufacturers," Knowlton said. "But not for drinking water, because nobody was doing the manufacturing for that and the EPA had not approved it."
Manufacturers began working on using the technology for drinking water and the EPA finally approved its use. "And then, the prices started dropping like a rock," he said.
In Camden and Rockport, the new technology allowed them to build a plant able to filter 6 million gallons of water a day from Grassy Pond and Mirror Lake.
"We could have gone the same way as Auburn did, and go for UV treatment," Knowlton said. "But we looked into our crystal ball and made an educated guess that the federal government would require filtration for everyone at some point in the future, that nobody will get a filtration waiver. We decided it made sense to comply today, and then we don't have to worry about keeping the waiver any longer."
The plant cost $7 million, but only $2 million of that paid for the filtration equipment. Most of it went to construct the building and piping for the filtration plant, Knowlton said.
"If you had the physical plant existing, you could build a filtration plant for much, much less than we paid," he said.
Once the filtration plant comes on line in 2011, Aqua Maine no longer has to worry about meeting state and federal standards to keep the filtration waiver.
Storer said the Twin Cities considered filtration and still opted against it. Even using Aqua Maine’s same plans, Storer estimated adding filtration to the current system would cost an additional $15 to $30 million. Most of that has to do with the size of the operation. While Aqua Maine needs to treat 6 million gallons a day, the Lake Auburn plant would need to treat between 7 million and 8 million gallons daily — with occasional boosts of up to 16 million gallons.
“Part of the problem is that the larger you get, the harder it is to filter — and more expensive,” he said. “The long-terms costs each year, in terms of maintenance and staffing, could add $500,000 more in costs to the treatment for each city.”
But Auburn's Storer and Camden-Rockport's Knowlton said filtration would not change watershed rules in their respective areas.
"The No. 1 best way to keep your water quality high is to actively manage what gets into it in the first place," Knowlton said. "The regulations may change, but the best practices don't. You still have to have an aggressive watershed plan, no matter how you treat your water."
Knowlton said Aqua Maine’s watershed restrictions are just as tough as those around Lake Auburn and will continue to be, despite the filtration system now in place.
“We have a no-swimming, no-bodily-contact rule too,” he said. “We allow fishing, but no motors. So, in a lot of ways, we’re more restrictive than Auburn.”
Both UV treatment and membrane filtration depend on having clear water in the first place.
“We have study after study showing that watershed protection is the best way to protect the drinking water,” Storer said. “It’s the one thing I’ve had the hardest time getting across to people.”
Storer said the watershed group is near the end of its acquisition program; he acknowledged his group has turned down offers to purchase home lots in the watershed because commission members are sensitive to concerns about the loss of private property.
But efforts to protect the watershed will continue, he said, which is why the group has proposed the $250,000 yearly acquisition program for critical parcels.
"I think it should be tough to build in a watershed, but not impossible," Storer said. "There are ways to do it and not harm the watershed, and I think that's what we're trying to promote."
As the city’s appointee to the watershed group, Farrell said he plans to continue scrutinizing all of their efforts.
“Basically, we have a group that has control of a significant portion of land in our city, with no city oversight,” Farrell said. “So we need to really look at that. They deserve much more scrutiny then they’ve had.”
Bilodeau said he would continue to pressure the watershed group and the city.
"There is no harm in looking at alternatives for water quality," Bilodeau said. "One thing nobody's looked at is that the filtration waiver may not be the most cost-effective way to go anymore. So let's look at what it costs us, really, to keep that, and what we lose (by keeping it)."