AUBURN — After a lengthy debate Monday, the City Council voted 4-3 against supporting Mayor Jason Levesque’s proposed committee on water quality at Lake Auburn.

Levesque plans to create it anyway.

The decision came after the council tabled the issue two weeks ago due to questions over the intentions of the proposed committee and whether it will be helpful or a hindrance to watershed protection efforts at Lake Auburn.

The debate has swirled ever since a late summer algae bloom led to taste and odor issues for Lewiston-Auburn residents for much of the fall, with some asking if a filtration plant at the lake could clear up the issue while possibly allowing for more recreation or development.

Due to the historically clean water supply, Lewiston and Auburn receive a waiver from the state that allows the district to deliver water without filtering it. However, Levesque and others believe it’s only a matter of time before the district loses its waiver if the algae issues continue.

Water officials have argued that a filtration plant could cost some $35 million and increase local water rates, while even if a plant were built, watershed protection efforts would still take precedent over recreation or development.

The council voted 4-3 Monday against supporting the committee, but Levesque, by charter, is allowed to create and appoint temporary committees.

Prior to the vote, he told councilors that he would create the committee without their support.

“This process is going to happen,” he said. “Is it going to be clean, or is it going to be muddy?”

Levesque described the panel as a “fact-finding committee” in order to have the necessary info in place should the district lose its waiver. If that happens, the district has 18 months to have a plan in place.

Councilors Belinda Gerry, Holly Lasagna, Bob Hayes and David Young voted against the measure.

Young told the mayor he believed the city is “overstepping our authority here,” given that the Auburn Water District has sole authority over the lake. “We should be concerned about this and I think we’re taking the wrong approach.”

A number of people in the audience and on the council questioned the makeup and stated goals of the committee.

A council memo describing the water quality committee features a long list of goals, including creating a concept plan for a filtration plant and estimating the length of time the filtration waiver can be maintained.

Another goal, described as, “an economic analysis to evaluate the cost/benefit of a water filtration plant, including the level of development that might be supported and the cost of additional municipal services to support such development and the extent to which new tax revenues would offset these costs,” was struck from the language by the council after it led to concerns.

Three residents that had previously approached Levesque about serving on the committee — Jason Pawlina, Fred Koch and Evan Cyr — all spoke in favor of forming the committee during the meeting.

“The question is not if, it’s when,” Koch said regarding the filtration waiver. “So I’m in strong support of reviewing options out there.”

Councilor Lasagna later said she was concerned that the possible appointees to the committee had “preconceived notions” of what should be done on the lake.

Holly Ewing, a Bates College professor who has been a Lake Auburn researcher since 2008, said that given the increasing phosphorus levels in the lake, it is “paramount” that watershed protection efforts continue at a high level, even if a filtration plant were to be built.

She said a potential committee should include professionals in water and “highly technical issues.”

“Everything has to be done, regardless of filtration, to limit phosphorus, and that includes limiting development,” she said.

Camille Parish, who said she is an environmental scientist, said she’s concerned that the proposed committee would not be able to determine fact from fiction.

Levesque said he was surprised that people were against more exploration, and more data on the issue.

“An independent committee can take this info, without any fear, put it together and present it to the council,” he said. “The opposition to knowing is what worries me.”

Councilor Andy Titus, who Levesque said would chair the committee, said he’d like the committee to “hopefully put us in a better spot, so that if we lose the waiver we’re prepared.”

He said the city is working hard to attract new residents, but that Lake Auburn is a “serious problem” that could drive people out.

On both sides of the issue, there seems to be agreement that the level of phosphorus in the lake is growing.

Prior to the debate over the committee, Auburn Water District Superintendent Sid Hazelton said Auburn and Lewiston will treat the lake with aluminum sulfate this summer, which is designed to eliminate algae-producing phosphorus in the water column.

Last week, the Lewiston council held a workshop discussion about Auburn’s proposed committee on water filtration, but opted to wait to see what Auburn decided to do.

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