Jimmy May of Auburn spends some time Thursday fishing in Lake Auburn. By early afternoon he had not caught anything he was impressed with. “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work,” May said. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

AUBURN — Last week, city councilors received an impassioned letter from Lawrence Comeau, a self-proclaimed “water enthusiast,” who said he is proud to have Lake Auburn as a “clean, unfiltered water supply.”

He pleaded with officials not to pursue a pilot program that could introduce swimming and other recreation in the lake.

“None of us will be around in 80 years, but Lake Auburn and our descendants will be. What the lake looks like then certainly hinges on the decisions that all of you make today,” he wrote to councilors.

Within an hour, that letter had been forwarded to Auburn Water District trustees and staff. Within two hours, the council again received a long message, but this time from Dan Bilodeau, a water district trustee and member of the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission, who has long questioned how the lake is governed.

Bilodeau said much of Comeau’s email included “age-old assumptions” about what could cause the district to lose its filtration waiver — the waiver allows the district to treat the water with ultraviolet light and other means without having to pay to filter it.

The correspondence occurred just a few weeks after a consultant hired by the city presented a summary of a forthcoming report on the lake, which, among other things, included the potential for the pilot program for swimming. But the quick back-and-forth notes from Comeau and Bilodeau represented years of similar arguments over how Lake Auburn should be used.

While officials and the public are still waiting for the full report expected later this month, it’s clear there’s already been some maneuvering to grab the ear of elected officials.

‘IT’S NOT GOING TO POISON THE LAKE’

Two weeks ago, after the consultants behind the study presented some of the findings to city officials, Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque called the results “the dawn of a new era in Auburn.”

Following the initial presentation, Levesque said the report provides “actionable data that we can use to influence the future of our city and build something that’s economically sustainable, ecologically sound, and something that creates recreational opportunities for all our residents.”

But while the presentation raised the possibility of creating a small swimming area at the lake, Levesque said that’s unlikely to be prioritized. Instead, he said, he’d like to see some “common sense” changes to lake restrictions, namely allowing small sailboats and ice fishing during the winter.

Morgan Curtis, Auburn Water District’s courtesy boat Inspector packs up her station on Thursday at the Lake Auburn boat launch. Curtis examines boats entering and leaving the lake for milfoil and other invasive aquatic plants. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“The takeaway is not that we should swim in Lake Auburn. The takeaway is that the lake is healthy. It’s all about the modernization of what we can do in Lake Auburn,” he said. “God forbid someone falls off a sailboat into the water. But, if it happens, it’s not going to poison the lake.”

Due to historically clean water in the lake, the district has received a waiver of filtration since 1991. In order to maintain the waiver, however, the district must meet strict state guidelines to preserve the quality of the water. That has resulted in a long list of prohibitions including ice fishing, sailboats, boats large enough to have on-board toilets or sleeping quarters, jet skis and sea planes, among other things.

It’s also led to other protection efforts, including a gull management program and the acquisition of land throughout the watershed to prevent development.

In recent years, algae blooms caused by phosphorus and nutrients from stormwater and agricultural runoff have led to another related debate: Is building a multimillion-dollar filtration plant inevitable, or should watershed protection efforts continue to evolve to maintain the waiver?

City officials, when approving the $100,000 study this year, hoped to put some hard data toward those questions, and the initial presentation appeared to show that the district could maintain its filtration waiver even after the introduction of “low-impact” development and some increased recreation.

The study, conducted by FB Environmental, along with the Horsley Witten Group and the University of Maine, analyzed the environmental, economic and regulatory impacts of water protection in the Lake Auburn watershed.

The consultants used a computer model to quantify the delivery of phosphorus, a nutrient known to cause or exacerbate algae blooms and bacteria in lakes, and used several models to predict water quality conditions up to the year 2100.

But, without access to the full report, there are still a lot of questions, and several people told the Sun Journal they are waiting to read the full study before forming any opinions.

When the Sun Journal reached out to FB Environmental with questions regarding the study, the reporter was referred to Auburn city staff for questions.

Eric Cousens, director of Planning and Permitting, said city staff is hoping to have an “internal draft” of the report by mid-August, with the council receiving it by the third week of August. He said staff “wants to make sure the consultants have addressed the concerns of the council.”

A QUESTION OF LOSING THE WAIVER

Sid Hazelton, superintendent of the Auburn Water District, said most of the “deliverables” — things officials hoped would be answered in the study — were not addressed in the initial presentation.

Asked about the presentation, he said he will “reserve judgment until the report has been distributed and we have had a chance to thoroughly review it.”

But questioned about the idea of swimming, or a pilot program to test its viability, he said the state’s Drinking Water Program, which regulates public drinking water systems in Maine, “informed me that such a proposal would result in loss of our filtration waiver.”

He added, “first and foremost the public should know that this study was initiated, administered, and paid for by the city of Auburn, not the Auburn Water District.”

Hazelton drew the distinction because the district’s goal is to protect the lake, while the goals of the city councilors who approved the study may be more diverse.

The consultant’s presentation described two models used to predict future phosphorus levels in the lake based on varying degrees of development.

One looked at development and other changes within the watershed based on “business as usual,” meaning with no changes to current restrictions around the lake. The other looked at “maximum development,” if rules were relaxed.

The simulation estimated that based on “business as usual,” there would be some new development, including in the upper watershed areas of Turner and Minot. But the model projects that, by 2100, the average annual phosphorus in the lake would be 9.5 parts per billion, close to a critical threshold of 10 parts per billion that FB Environmental said leads to the kinds of algae blooms that have plagued the lake in the past, but not likely to violate the district’s filtration waiver.

The “maximum development” model ultimately exceeds the 10 ppb threshold. Councilors were also told there is uncertainty in the modeling, particularly due to climate change.

Regardless of the study results, some officials have already said they wouldn’t support the introduction of swimming.

Former City Councilor Bob Stone, who is also a moderator of an Auburn community Facebook page, said in a post, “Keep the human bodies out of Lake Auburn. There are plenty of other places to frolic.”

In response, Councilor Leroy Walker said, “I doubt that any councilor will support swimming in the big lake. I know that I am one that will not support that.”

Asked about whether he sees any benefit in pursuing smaller changes to allowed recreation on the lake, Hazelton said, “the Auburn Water District and Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission promote and permit recreational activities in and around the lake that will not jeopardize water quality and our filtration waiver.”

The letter to the council from Comeau asked officials not to approve “any pilot program or make any changes that would endanger (the lake’s) health and near unspoiled beauty.”

He said, “If this is a dawn of a new era in Auburn, then every minute detail must be considered when proposing any changes to the lake’s current usage and development restrictions. I firmly believe that the risks of making these changes far outweigh the benefits.”

PRESSURE ON TOWNS IN THE UPPER WATERSHED?

While the prospect of swimming has led to strong reactions, another piece of the watershed study that has grabbed the attention of Levesque and others has been data on Lake Auburn’s upper watershed.

Turner, Minot, Buckfield and Hebron all have land areas in the watershed with tributaries that feed into the lake, and for that reason have representation on the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission.

According to the FB Environmental presentation, the amount of development that has occurred in the upper watershed towns over the past few decades has outpaced Auburn, and the areas also contribute stormwater runoff high in phosphorus.

Levesque said those involved in this process are already talking about the outlying towns, which he said “have not been held to the same standard that Auburn has.”

Bilodeau said his biggest takeaway from the presentation was that “future watershed protections need to come from Minot, Turner, Hebron and Buckfield.”

“Only the Auburn Water District has the authority to enact legislation to protect this water source including the Basin, Mud Pond, Townsend Brook and the tributaries in those townships, and it’s going to happen because it’s the greatest contributor to phosphorus that isn’t under any protective ordinances other than state laws,” he said.

The representatives from the outlying towns on the commission did not respond to questions for this story.

Hazelton said that since the commission was formed in 1993, “we have been extremely fortunate to have excellent representatives who understand the regional benefit of the commission’s watershed protection efforts. The outlying towns have benefited through the administration of our 319 grants, as well as our education and outreach efforts. The outlying watershed towns have been good neighbors, and we look forward to their continued cooperation.”

The final decision-making on any changes to the bylaws governing recreation and watershed protection around the lake lies with the Auburn Water District trustees.

State law stipulates that the trustees have the authority “to promulgate bylaws regulating and restricting recreational and other uses of Lake Auburn as may be required to preserve the purity of the water to protect it as a public drinking water supply.”

According to Hazelton, the bylaws are reviewed by the trustees every five years “to consider their continued effectiveness,” and “the public will be notified when a review is taking place, and provide a reasonable opportunity for public comment.”

Bilodeau, who owns 16 acres next to Lake Auburn and maintains miles of trails, has long questioned watershed oversight due to its impact on potential recreational opportunities.

Bilodeau said following the release of the study that he believes the trustees “will move forward any recommendations from the city via the study to update a long-overdue review of the bylaws for the protection of Lake Auburn,” as well as make recommendations to the Auburn Planning Board to update ordinances governing the Lake Auburn Watershed Overlay zone.

Asked about the recent presentation, he said, “Swimming (and) responsible recreation is all fine with me, especially as other unfiltered water systems allow and manage this stuff already, and now Auburn has the data to back the safe decisions to make changes.”

Hazelton said one of the “deliverables” expected from the report is a look at similar water districts in Maine that also have filtration waivers. A comparison that is often made, he said, is Sebago Lake, the drinking water source for the state’s most populous area.

While Sebago Lake is an unfiltered water supply where swimming is allowed, Sebago is 15 times larger and three times as deep as Lake Auburn, with a “no trespassing” zone around the water intake line that’s larger than the footprint of Lake Auburn.

OUTLET BEACH SWIMMING?

While the idea of swimming in Lake Auburn appears to be treading water at best, the city is not abandoning other options.

Auburn has been exploring options to bring back swimming at the Lake Auburn outlet. The area has picnic tables and a small playground, but has been closed to swimming for several years. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Councilor Walker said the city has been exploring options to bring back swimming at the Lake Auburn outlet, also known as the municipal beach, which is on the opposite side of Route 4 from the lake.

The swimming hole has been plagued with water quality issues during the summer months due to poor water flow and circulation, and has been closed to swimming since 2013. But the council revived talks about the outlet late last year.

In 2013, the water there exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards 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.

After talks restarted among city staff in 2020, basic tests were conducted, which showed numbers consistent with previous testing. It was tested six times in 2020; the water exceeded E. coli levels in two of the samples.

Lake Auburn feeds the outlet 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.

Levesque said the city is looking at options for how to reopen the outlet, including the use of aeration, regenerative zones or other techniques to circulate water.

He said “we very well could, by next year or the year after, be able to swim” in the outlet, adding that recent incidents of accidents and a drowning on the Androscoggin River “should provide a lot of motivation to get this going.”

According to Auburn City Manager Phil Crowell, no funding has been allocated toward the project yet, but he said after the council directed the Recreation Committee to explore the outlet, an update will be coming soon.

Levesque said if he could choose between reopening the outlet beach or starting a pilot program on the lake, he’d stick with the outlet. There’s already public bathrooms and other facilities there.

“We’ve already invested resources there, it’s a built-out park with a long history, and a perfect place to have recreational swimming,” he said. “No one, including myself, is in favor of converting a section of Lake Auburn into a municipal beach.”

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