Drinking water, or more? Watershed rules determine Lake Auburn's role

AUBURN — Dan Bilodeau stands on Whitman Spring Road, about 100 yards above Lake Auburn, and counts the things the lake represents for him.

Lake Auburn watershed issues
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

John Storer, superintendent of the Auburn Water District, looks out over Lake Auburn.

Dan Bilodeau of Auburn says it's time to consider changing Lake Auburn watershed rules and easing lakeside development standards.

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)."

staylor@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Dan Bilodeau's picture

Its in the zoning ordinance

Bubba,

Why don't you take a deep breath and look at Chapter 29, Lake Auburn Overlay ordinance....why do you insist to shoot off on something that you have absolutely no idea what will come it? Zoning is not perpetual, WHAT YOU NEED TO ENCOURAGE is making the LAWPC lands held in legal conservation easement, now you got something you can take to every one's grave.....it will be "saved" to what ever extend you aspire to.

I can tell you the LAWPC (Norm Lamie, since resigned) influenced Auburn's Comprehensive Update Committee to re-zone the south shore of Lake Auburn (gravel pits) to a Lake Auburn Business zone. He did this without any authority from the City by using the LAWPC to negotiate a land deal that swapped shoreline for business development rights and your right a mini "Plum Creek" was created to benefit K & K and you know who runs that operation. On the positive side the ugly eye sore of a gravel abyss will someday be higher paying jobs for our kids, maybe keep them to this community! But it was the regulators that made the deal, not the people of this community! So go ahead and put your trust in the suits that pay for bias consulting or you can can ask for the data that relects the health of our water system.

Dan

Dan Bilodeau's picture

Brave one

And ojhuig, you need to join us at L/A Optimist meetings in Lewiston....you missed the humor in the watershed saga's and obviously been put in a bad spot. You should be more positive and at least sign your work....I always do!

Travel to India and China (go on-line if you will), you be impressed on the advancements of the US...and Maine. When you start with a good water supply, keep it that way, and plan to use the same science and data to take water delivery into the 21st century you really have little to worry about..... except the loss of good men being good to their neighbors because they are too afraid to admit failure. I fail every day, maybe that's why I am successful at what I do.....

You should be happy to know that progress will continue to be made in the water world. If it all goes to hell it will be because of failures beyond you and I.

Dan

Bob Stone's picture

Oj,,,think you have the wrong Dan

Bilodeau is not Tron. Tron is a Breton.

 's picture

Thanks for the clarification.

Thanks for the clarification. Your concerns seem very reasonable to me now. Too bad it wasn't in the article, not that I expect "facts" from the S/J.

Dan Bilodeau's picture

Clarification

Tired, all good questions.

Let me address them.....more recreation? For example sailboats and moorings are not allowed by the Commission, ice skating was challenged last year and it has become provisional, the list goes on and on.

Tax Revenue? What Councilor Farrell & former Mayor Jenkins got into a few years back was where does the watershed ripple effect end? When is it enough to insure safe water quality? Its not defined, but recent action by the LAWPC shows they are only interested in shoreline properties because HERE IS WHERE THE DATA supports no development.

Tax revenue means vacant lots and additions to existing homes already zoned for that purpose outside the shore land zoning with vegitative buffers sufficient to handle any new impervious areas that could result in non-point source pollution to Lake Auburn.

Why would the non-profits want to buy this? Because they have a budget and want to use or loose their funding, in the mean time it erodes the tax base and causes every other tax payer to pay in for a useless environmental gain because it happens to be a mile away from the lake or in an uncritical area.

24 ac? 6 Ac? We are small property owners in this area. My 24 ac has been offered to the Commission at least 6 times in the last 20 years. They won't pay fair market value but they regulate with red-tape when Auburn's zoning supports it. THANK GOD for Auburn's planning people....they have been outstanding the last few years to insure property owners get a fair shake under existing laws.

Farrell nor I can subdivide our properties today. If it becomes possible it will because of the planning board, subdivsion law or ordinances that allow smaller lots. The recent development around my house was based on individual, existing lots of record. If you think the Bouffards and McFarlands can get there way out here they cant!

Current regulations are simply outdated. You have the former state soil scientist Ken Stratton who clearly summed it up "CRAZY." You have the current state site evaluator David R. who is in disbelief of the current 36 inch ordinance. BECAUSE OF THIS ORDINANCE MY PROPERTY IS PERMITTED for 2000 gallons a day of septic effluent in deep course gravelly soils within 800 feet of Lake Auburn....what is there to like about that SNAFU by the LAWPC? I was unaware until well after my permits were issued.

I built my home here thinking that everything was on the up and up. Only after I built did I find the deception and corruption taking place in the office of the Superindendant of the Auburn Water & Sewer District. Thankfully this man has resigned his position and has moved on.

I share your thoughts in your last paragraph, I'm not looking for change either, but I want regulating in this watershed to be transparent and I want it to be fair & equitable between the parties involved.

Dan

 's picture

Perhaps that's what some of

Perhaps that's what some of us don't understand and need to learn the specifics. The article is vague and hard to follow. It jumps between yourself, Farrell, and Storer so much you can't follow what is actually being talked about. On the one hand, you are advocating for opening it up to more recreation, a beach perhaps. On the other hand, you state that the "lake is protected" and we "have what your asking for". I believe in the past Mike Farrell has mentioned something about the subject of tax revenue that could be raised by more development out there (if this is not correct, please correct me and I apologize. But I believe I read that in past articles on this subject). Now we have an article where you (who owns 24 acres) and Farrell (who advocates for more development AND also owns 6 acres) are vaguely asking questions about the watershed commission. I don't think it's a stretch for some people to assume that you are hoping to subdivide and develop additional lots. Is that the plan? What is it, exactly, about the current regulations that you dislike? Why did you build your home in an area where the current restrictions are not to your liking?

I believe that it's because of this vagueness that most folks, myself included, jump to the side of preserving the current status of the lake and surrounding land. Everyone LOVES Lake Auburn! It is clean! It is pristine! It's a bit of wilderness right on the edge of Auburn! We don't mind a few houses/farms scattered along the shoreline, but I have visions of a bunch of out-of-stater's coming in and buying up this property while we locals lose a little bit of something special so that a Doctor from Massachusetts can build a summer home on the water.

 's picture

water quality

As water quality drops, so do real estate values.

The lesson is that if you want to relax protection and if the new rules degrade water quality - sell quickly, don't buy.

Dan Bilodeau's picture

Most of you have what your asking for....

The lake is protected with ordinances....not opinions, you have what your asking for, with the compromise that it be available for recreation as well.

Not everyone recreates the same, so in fairness to others it should be shared....that simple.

Now comes the cost to maintain it. Conservation efforts cost money. Are you willing to pay for it? I hope so or your ideas won't fly. The reason that it is under so much controversy is because for years the Commission has had some silent partners that won't pay for it any more. Blame the economy, blame me, blame yourself but cost effective water will dictate its' use in this community.

Come on over and take a tour of responsible development and recreational use of what is legally a Great Pond....colonial ordinance governs such a body in public trust.....

Many appreciate your comments, many don't understand the cost to get to watershed heaven. But the bottom line....in early childhood your were taught to share.....make your parents happy!

Dan Bilodeau

 's picture

I used to believe that as

I used to believe that as well, until I learned the rationale for this. BioHazards, ie kids peeing in the waters, will sink and be taken in to the drinking water supply. While petrol products float and do not get anywhere near the intake pipes. It's very simple really.

But I agree - leave Lake Auburn alone, I think the majority of us like it just the way it is. Even worse than a "mini-Sebago" - how about we turn it into a cess pool like Sabattus Pond or have some REALLY intrusive development like the Plum Creek plan at Moosehead?

 's picture

Watershed Facts from Bilodeau's insight.

Folks, I have been studying this Lake issue for over six years now and living in Auburn and recreating around Lake Auburn since 1966.

Its easy for the facts to get twisted into someone's agenda but consider my comments with regard to the latest read on Lake Auburn.

1.. I never said reduce restrictions. I want to keep them from getting worse without data to promote them to becoming more restrictive. A new study is out and it was done out of context and against water quality data. It is bias and was paid for by a few long-time Commissioners representing the water-rate payers...

2. Again, DATA, would support swimming if it is even considered! Scott did a great job researching the facts, give him some credit on the truths of this watershed management program, he may not have fully interpreted my swimming comment correctly.....this watershed management plan.... it isn't all good for the public.

3. I have already built my house under extreme scrutiny. I can not gain from existing ordinances changing in the near or long term.....www.auburnwatershed.org tells the true picture of our organization and it is to protect property rights under Auburn's ordinances. The commenter should explain how I can can rich so I can learn something new.

4. Please feel free to contact me and take a tour of our property so you can see what extend we have protected the environment and what we have done for public access and recreation. You can run your mouth without verification of the facts or you can take tour of the property and meet the guy behind the changes that other communities have been forced to consider.

Dan Bilodeau
207 North Auburn Road

 's picture

Why not eliminate all boats

Why not eliminate all boats then? I have seen plenty pulling up to the boat launch spewing plenty of gas and fumes. If it is better to keep it clean to begin with ban all water activities on the lake.

 's picture

Lake Auburn, R.I.P.

I hate to think about it, but I suspect the folks with the money are going to win this battle. A generation from now, we'll be saying, "Remember how beautiful Lake Auburn used to be?"

Bob Stone's picture

Let's Not Screw This Up

I say stay the course on Lake Auburn watershed protection. As was stated several times in the story: Keep the water clean in the first place.

There are plenty of other lakes and ponds in Maine to recreate on. Lake Auburn is a beautiful and nearly pristine natural asset that has been kept that way for over 100 years by our forefathers.

 's picture

I figured it out!

So, let me get this straight. Mr Bilodeau, owner of 24 acres of prime land that could be developed bringing him in lots and lots of money, is in favor of easing the rules about use of the lake and the land around it. And those rules about septic systems, not necessary he says, and he must be an expert, right? We know that all he really wants is to allow a very small swimming beach way over in one corner of the lake, if restrictions were easd he wouldn't do anything else, right? It would be much better for him if more development, with less rules, was allowed. It would also be better for him if taxpayers picked up a millions of dollars tab to build, and then who knows how much to operate, a water filtration system, so he can enjoy the land that he purchased with the full knowledge that these restrictions were in place and why they were in place. So, to recap, go ahead and let the lake absorb more pollutants, and let taxpayers deal with the consequences, good deal! I have an even better idea, what if there is the slight possibility that there might be oil way down deep below the lake, why don't we let an oil company, like maybe say, BP, come in and try to make some money from the lake?

 's picture

yeah Right

So whats the real agenda??
1. Dan Bilodeau of Auburn says it's time to consider changing Lake Auburn watershed rules and easing lakeside development standards = I want to get rich at your expense!!!
2. "It's a huge, beautiful asset," he said. "That's why I built my home here. It's why all my neighbors built here." = I brought more land which i want to develope and get rich!!!
3. 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. = about the only truthfull thing in this article OUR VERY LIVES DEPEND ON IT!!!!
4.Bilodeau wonders if watershed protection has run its course, if it's time to consider changing watershed rules and easing lakeside development standards. = Stop the berrier that stands in my way of becoming rich AT YOUR RISK!!!!
5. But can you imagine how nice it would be to have a little swimming beach on one side?"= Can you imagine how nice it will be with a hotel or condo that i will build with people pissing and boating spuing gas and oil into your drinking supply????
6.Bilodeau has inspired Auburn City Councilor Mike Farrell, the city's appointee to the watershed commission, to begin asking some questions of his own. = hahaha does that mean bribery will get you anything I think bribing officals should get them 15-20 for both parties!!
7.Bilodeau argues that filtration isn’t as expensive as the 2005 report says.
“The technology has moved on and touts Aqua Maine, the privately owned utility that supplies drinking water to Camden and Rockport and their cost = However A. the realost here is 4-7 times higher maybe more and they did fail to say the rules are AS STRINGENT AS OUR EXISTING LAWS!!!
8. “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.”
OH Geez wait a minute Farrell now isnt he the city's appointee to the watershed commission? and could have told the watershed commission of impending sale hmmm question here did he help sail this through the council and if so was his help rewarded?? and throughout this whole article I see he himself owns a good amount of land in the area that if he could get rules weakened AT OUR RISK he and Bilodeau could be rich as amatter of fact this is exactly how this article really reads and I have to ask how much did these guys pay this paper to put this in the paper after all it seems not as a news article but as a propaganda article. and all i really get from it is the bast thing we could do is REMOVE FARRELL FROM THE COMMISSION AND THE CITY COUNCIL!!!!!!
well that is my thoughts on this article and if you dont like it TS, I THINK THE COMMISSION IS DOING THIER JOB AND SEEMS TO BE ONE OF THE FEW DEPARTMENTS WHO ARE DOING THINGS RIGHT!!! KEEP OUR DRINKING WATER SAFE AT ALL COSTS!!

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