AUGUSTA — A legislative committee approved a bill Thursday that aims to further protect water quality for 3,000 of the state’s largest lakes.

Among other things, LD 1744, authored by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, tightens regulations around the application of lawn fertilizers and pesticides.

The measure also directs the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to fill a staff vacancy meant to expand water quality protection education programs for waterfront property owners.

The measure provides $40,000 of funding for the state’s LakeSmart Protection program, which provides free educational programs for waterfront property owners. It also puts $20,000 in the state’s voluntary water monitoring program.

Both programs have been subject to recent state and federal budget cuts.

“For me, it was really about having a conversation with DEP and getting them back on track as far as protecting Maine’s fresh water, having the appropriate staffing levels,” McCabe said. 

McCabe said the biggest hurdle for the bill likely will be finding the money to fund it. The measure will move to the full House of Representatives later this month for a vote.

The bill also creates a 50-foot shoreline protection zone where the application of fertilizers is prohibited except to establish new turf or vegetation, but only after the property owner has completed a soil test.

Amendments to the bill scaled back its scope by limiting it to the state’s 3,000 Great Ponds — freshwater lakes that are larger than 10 acres. McCabe’s original bill had included all freshwater bodies, including streams, rivers and smaller ponds.

McCabe and other advocates of the bill said Maine lakes are a vital component of the state’s economy and protecting them protects jobs and the quality of life for much of the state’s population.

Peter Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s largest environmental organization, said the measure is the first significant effort aimed at lakes since 1997.

Didisheim said the measure strengthens the state’s “safety net for lakes.”

“Because these lakes are a big part of our economy,” Didisheim said, “Maine would be a completely different place without our lakes.”

Many towns depend on the property value of lakefront homes to generate revenue and with poor water quality, property values and tax revenues decline, Didisheim said.

The bill exempts lakeside farms, which already are required under state law to have soil nutrient plans.

When excessive phosphorus in fertilizer is allowed to erode into a lake, the result can be an algae bloom that robs the water of its available oxygen, damaging not only the clarity of the water but nearly all of the life in a lake’s food chain, including fish.

Opponents of the bill said the measure added a layer of unnecessary regulation for property owners with the fertilizer restrictions, while limiting what landscape professionals could do around lakes.

While the bill includes provisions that allow the use of fertilizer to establish vegetation where there is none, it has no provisions for improving the health of plants or turf at the water’s edge that are already established but may be struggling.

“I believe that statutes and regulations should be a little bit more general than specific,” said Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, who voted against the bill.

Still, Campbell said he believed the legislation was valuable because it raised awareness while refocusing attention on the important issue of protecting water quality.

“There’s a lot more we would like to accomplish here, but I think this does a really good job of protecting lakes that are important, at the same time recognizing the partnerships that we have,” said state Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee who worked to help redraft the bill and usher it through.

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