A wave splashes against the shore of Lake Auburn at the Route 4 turnout in 2019. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

AUBURN — City officials are proposing a comprehensive study of the ordinances governing Lake Auburn, bringing up a decades-long debate over water quality protections.

On Monday, City Manager Phil Crowell and Auburn Water District Superintendent Sid Hazelton will brief the City Council on a proposal to send out a request-for-proposals for the study, to be developed by an appointed work group.

According to the council memo, the study aims to “evaluate existing ordinances related to water quality protection at Lake Auburn,” including any potential “deficiencies” in watershed protection efforts, and updates to the ordinance “to include current best management practices.”

“The analysis must consider the overall effect on density of development within the watershed, associated runoff, wastewater disposal and water quality implications of alternatives,” the memo states.

When asked Thursday, Mayor Jason Levesque said the idea came forward after months of conversations between himself, other elected officials and city staff.

Levesque said the idea is to conduct “an independent third-party study” regarding “the economic cost of providing water.”

The debate between watershed protection efforts and the potential for more recreation on the lake has been amplified over the last few years, as the district has dealt with algae, warming temperatures and other questions over water quality.

Due to historically clean water at the lake, the district has received a waiver of filtration since 1991, which allows the district to treat the water with ultraviolet light and other means without having to pay to filter it.

While there are prohibitions on swimming, ice fishing and certain boats, the restrictions aren’t unlike many that exist on sources of public water throughout Maine.

But, as watershed protection efforts have expanded in order to protect the water quality of the lake and address increased stormwater runoff and other issues, some argue they go too far.

While Levesque has argued in the past for considering a filtration plant at the lake, previous studies have shown a filtration plant could cost millions, and add annual operating costs that would drive up customer rates.

Levesque knows it’s a charged issue.

“It needs to happen. There’s been so much back and forth. We have to get it all out onto the table, and add data to it and not just emotion,” he said.

Hazelton said Friday that he is in support of the effort for similar reasons — that it will provide data from a third-party source “that will be worthwhile to have.”

According to the memo, the outcomes of the evaluation will be used to help the Planning Board and City Council adopt ordinance amendments that “meet the needs of the city of Auburn.”

Those outcomes, it states, pertain to the ordinances’ economic, environmental, regulatory and community impacts.

Hazelton said a few elected officials approached the city manager regarding data on the cost of delivering water — not just the numbers reflected in the budget, but the economic impact of watershed protection.

“Getting this study, and getting data out there around this issue with the public involved is going to benefit everyone,” he said. “I certainly will support the effort.”

The city expects the study to be completed within four months of selection, including submission of the completed ordinance amendments for consideration at the Planning Board and City Council meetings, according to the memo.

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