AUBURN — The Twin Cities are forming a committee to study the feasibility of building a water filtration plant at Lake Auburn.

The decision comes a few weeks after taste and odor issues with the local drinking water subsided following a late summer algae bloom.

Since then, Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque has led the charge to consider a filtration plant, which previous estimates have placed in the $45 million range. 

Levesque began the push during an Auburn City Council meeting last week. During an update from water officials, Levesque argued water issues are harmful to the city’s image and economic development. Other councilors agreed, including Andy Titus, the mayor’s representative on the Auburn Water District trustees.

Water quality experts at the lake, however, say algae can impact conventional filter plants as well, and that there is no guarantee a filtration plant would have stopped the recent issue. 

On Wednesday, Levesque confirmed the two cities have had preliminary talks on establishing the committee and that it would be made up of four members from each community.

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.

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. 

Both Levesque and Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard believe it is a matter of time before the lake loses its waiver, at which point the cities would be automatically on the hook for a new filtration plant. 

“All we know is that what we’re doing now isn’t working,” Levesque said Wednesday. “It’s a fragile watershed, which is all the more reason to look at alternate sources of purification and filtration now, before we’re forced to do it.” 

Sid Hazelton, superintendent of the Auburn Water District, has argued building a filtration plant would cost millions and potentially add hundreds of dollars a year to the local water rates.

While he has agreed the district should explore alternate treatment options, he has also urged more watershed protection efforts, stating the lake is vulnerable to environmental and man-made threats. Due to the lake’s proximity to the cities, it is also susceptible to pollution from runoff that can add to the phosphorus issues.

Then there is the issue of climate change. Hazelton said last month data kept by the water district already show earlier “ice-outs” and later “ice-overs,” meaning the water is getting more exposure to heat and sunlight — optimal conditions for algae growth.

Synura algae, with an odor and taste similar to cucumber, was already blamed during the sunny, warm summer of 2018. 

Levesque said Wednesday he would like the new committee to look at alternatives to funding the project, rather than relying on hikes to water rates.

“There’s never been a thorough vetting of all possible solutions, and ways to pay for those solutions,” he said. 

Levesque also downplayed recent concerns from some residents that pursuing the filtration plant is a disguised push to allow increased development on the Lake Auburn watershed.

He said “those types of comments are designed to derail progress,” adding similar attitudes about the watershed have been around for years. 

No matter what Auburn does, he said, development in Turner and Minot is impacting the watershed. 

The Auburn Water District Board of Trustees later Wednesday was scheduled to discuss Levesque’s plan for a committee and a recent report commissioned by the water district that estimates it could cost between $45 million and $47 million to design, build and commission a new treatment plant in Auburn.

In Lewiston, Bouchard said Wednesday he agreed to the joint committee based on Lewiston’s need to “have our ducks in a row” should the region eventually lose its filtration waiver. 

“I would rather be prepared and proactive,” he said, adding that municipalities are often “reactive” to issues. 

Bouchard said he has been told by Lewiston water specialists filtration would likely not have helped the recent algae issue, but the region has one of the few waivers left. Thus, the need to explore filtration.

“It’s information we need to have,” Bouchard said. “We won’t know until we turn over the stones, so let’s turn them over.” 

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A view in 2009 of the Lewiston-Auburn drinking water treatment and pumping station in Auburn. (Sun Journal file photo)