Outlet Beach at Lake Auburn has been closed for swimming since 2013 due to bacteria in the water. Auburn officials are pursuing a study to see if the once-popular swimming hole can be revived. (Sun Journal file photo)

AUBURN — Outlet Beach at Lake Auburn has been closed for swimming since 2013 due to bacteria levels in the water, but Auburn officials are pursuing a study to see if the once-popular swimming hole can be revived.

The city has earmarked $100,000 toward a yearlong feasibility study that will take water and soil samples, water-flow assessments and other data to determine how the city could keep the swimming area clean and open to the public.

The beach area is part of Lake Grove Park, located at 2 Fair St., and has been a popular outdoor recreational area for years. However, the swimming hole has been plagued with water quality issues during the summer months due to poor water flow and circulation.

When the swimming hole was closed in 2013, the water exceeded Environmental Protection Agency levels of either E. coli bacteria or enterococci bacteria in 12 of 19 tests. City officials were waiting until the water was clear of bacteria for at least 30 days, but it never happened.

In a final review Tuesday of next year’s budget and capital improvement plan, the City Council was in favor of the study funding, which will be bonded as part of public services engineering costs in the CIP.

Public Services Director Dan Goyette said he has been working on the issue and the proposal is for engineering firm Woodard & Curran of Portland to conduct the study.

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Goyette said possible recommendations from the study could be dredging, “depending on the extent of the issue,” or an aeration system for better water circulation.

He said the water flow “slows down significantly in summer months, which is part of the problem.” He told the council there have been a lot of opinions and much hearsay on what is wrong with the water and how to fix it. He added that the study would give a “much clearer picture of what’s actually going on.”

“What do we need to do to make sure it’s a safe, long-term investment?” Goyette said.

The beach was last open for swimming in 2012, but swimming was shut down twice that season after coliform bacteria was found in the water. The bacteria can cause minor skin and eye infections, gastrointestinal disorders and respiratory illness.

A subsequent 2013 report commissioned by the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission and the city blamed part of the problem on a lack of fresh water. Lake Auburn feeds the pond through a single, 25-foot-wide outlet spillway under Route 4. Fresh water follows an eight-foot-deep stream through the pond and runs out through a spillway into Bobbin Mill Brook, under Fair Street.

During Tuesday’s meeting, city officials agreed the park and beach are important to Auburn. City Councilor Holly Lasagna said the public beach was one of the reasons she was attracted to Auburn when she moved here.

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Councilor Belinda Gerry said Lake Grove Park is a popular spot whether the water is open for swimming or not, and believes even if it cannot be opened to swimmers, more public events should take place there.

Councilor Leroy Walker said “there used to be 100 people using the park almost every day.”

Councilor Alfreda Fournier described the area as “a gem,” adding that the study is needed to determine if reopening it to swimming is feasible.

Still, some councilors had questions.

“It seems high to start this thing,” Andrew Titus said, referring to the $100,000 cost.

He questioned how many people would “actually use it,” with the chance that, even if remediated, swimming is prohibited again down the road.

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The $100,000 is only for the water testing and study. Any remediation would have to be funded separately.

Mayor Jason Levesque said the study would be conducted in stages. If there were any major “roadblocks,” he said, the study could stop to save money.

Councilor Bob Hayes said he was hesitant to commit to the funding because Auburn needs a year-round, indoor swimming pool, with the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA pool now closed.

A new outdoor aquatic facility would cost at least $1.5 million, Levesque said.

The mayor said Wednesday that if swimming were eventually allowed again at Outlet Beach, he would see the city and YMCA partnering in an aquatic program.

He said the city will also contact the Auburn Water District and Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission about possible collaborations. No swimming is allowed at Lake Auburn.

The council discussed hosting a separate workshop on the topic.

According to the city’s website, Lake Grove Park is open to the public, at no charge, from dawn until dusk. It features picnic tables, gazebos, playground equipment and grills.

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