by Lindsey Papa and Matt Scott
The popular press always talks about Maine having 6,000 lakes and ponds, but only those of 10 acres or more are in the public domain. This leaves about 2,750 lakes in the public domain. These waters are important for the various fisheries for which they provide and to lakeshore property owners. However, all waters, flowing or standing, are waters of the State.
The value and future use of these waters depends on tourism of many types, especially for registered guides, sporting camp owners, and property owners. Fishing guides and ecotourism businesses on these lakes and ponds are going to become the major economic industry of Maine's future, especially after this virus epidemic. These lakes and ponds are destinations for the inland tourism of Maine. This is why we call them our "crown jewels." The unique water quality of Maine's lakes makes them some of the clearest lakes and ponds in the U.S. This statement is based on years of research and water quality data from Lake Stewards of Maine and other organizations working for Maine lakes and ponds.
This is not to say the lakes and ponds in our state are without issues. If we focus on a subset of Central Maine lakes in the Belgrade area, we can see that some have had large shifts in quality over time. Water transparency (taken with a Secchi disk), a good proxy for water quality, shows lakes with a wide range of changes since the 1970s.
Lakes and ponds located in the same general area might react differently to various stressors. Long Pond, Annabessacook Lake, and China Lake are geographically close to each other but are part of three separate lake drainage chains. Long Pond has seen a sustained trend of relatively good water quality since the '70s, while China Lake has seen decreases in water quality over this same period, although recent data does show some improvement. Annabessacook, only 20 miles south, has seen increases in water quality since the '70s. This lake was also the first alum-treated lake in Maine with satisfactory results.
The different reactions of these lake systems to changes in the abiotic and biotic factors that affect them highlight the importance of monitoring these lakes and being flexible with lake management. Maine has a strong system of monitoring through the various organizations and volunteers that test the water quality of these lakes yearly. Management for Maine waterbodies has improved dramatically since the '70s. There is no longer sewage floating in the water, bass populations are much larger, and loon and eagle populations in this area have increased.
Matt Scott has said in the past, however, that all Maine Lakes are vulnerable: A very bold and provocative statement, because there are some exceptions. The lakes in Baxter Park, Acadia National Park, and in the Public Reserved Lands are protected by the state. Then we have some smaller lakes and ponds that are more remote that will offer some solitude, but even these are still threatened.
If Maine continues with land-based wind power, we will see the fragmentation of high elevations and impact to downstream waters from such development. When Matt served with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for eight years, he was never a friend of land-based wind power. We have several unique lakes above 1500 feet in elevation that deserve protection.
In the lowlands where our large lake systems exist, we have serious issues for fishery managers from the "bucket biologists," who stock non-native fish in water bodies, and it never seems to stop. These invasive fish change the fishery management of a lake or pond forever. We should also worry about shoreline development, which is always going to be an issue as Maine's population grows. Based on data from the University of Southern Maine's Charlie Colgan of a few years ago, Maine will probably grow through the next few decades along the I-95 corridor and the East-West highway Route 9. All of these crown jewels are within 30 minutes of the interstate.
Shorefront development can result in erosion and increased amounts of nutrients and pollutants in aquatic systems. Much of the shoreline development on these lakes occurred before the 1970s environmental laws and would not be permitted today. The lot sizes are too small. There are structures up against the water, and camp roads are too close to the lake. More recent developments are much more lake-friendly, yet there are still mowed and fertilized lawns straight to the shore, just like tidy New Jersey suburban bungalows.
Shorefront development on Central Maine lakes has increased since the 1970s. If we can assume 6 people inhabit every shorefront lot along the lakes in the Belgrade region on peak weekends, the largest lakes in this area could draw upwards of 20,000 people. This is roughly the population of Saco.
This is especially concerning given that the soil in this area of Maine can have a high clay content with poor drainage. This limits the soil's capacity to absorb and process wastewater effluent from septic systems, especially overworked septic systems on peak tourism weekends. Further, many of these septics were installed before state regulations took effect in the 1970s. It is now recognized that many of the early rules were inadequate.
Steep and often poorly maintained camp roads are an ongoing concern, especially as the frequency of intense rainstorms has increased since they were laid out decades ago. Impervious materials such as building rooftops, asphalt drives, and paved roads all contribute to lake impairment and help accelerate what we call cultural eutrophication. The conversion of camps and cottages to yearround homes will continue to affect the lakes. The Maine Lake Society's LakeSmart program is a model of how lakeshore property owners can help protect lake water quality.
These waters will continue to attract tourists for the guiding businesses, ecotourism, and shoreline property owners, both seasonal and year-round. As our roads and infrastructure change, we will see a change in our aquatic ecosystems. So, protection and prevention are going to be the prescribed control for the future. We already know the total annual economic value of our lakes and ponds in Maine based on a 2017 University of Maine study. This figure of $4 billion per year is quite revealing. It considers annual property taxes, fishing and guiding and spending for each year. This is why we say the new economic industry in Maine is tourism. While we like to record the progress made, it is clear that unless things change, our lakes remain on a path toward long-term, if slow, decline in water quality again. Protecting these waters for future generations is up to all of us.
A recent publication by Jeremey Deeds from the Maine DEP shows a modeling map of the Coastal region of Maine where there is underlying marine clay from the most recent glaciation. This is where these central Maine "crown jewels" lie. This is also where the greatest impact from anthropogenic activity in the direct watershed will impact lake water quality. This region is influenced by ocean temperatures in the winter, and lakes in the coastal region are warmer. This region also has the greatest population density compounding the impact on the nearshore landscape from development.
We continue to look for the silver bullet to solve our lake problems from over development, and alum applications might very well be the answer. Time will tell as other lakes in Maine become candidates for treatment. Thus far Maine has at least three lakes treated with this type of technology.
Lindsey Papa is a Colby College student intern working on lakes issues this summer before her senior year. She is collaborating with Matt Scott and Lloyd Irland. Matt is a fisheries biologist who has served in senior posts in Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Environmental Protection. He recently received Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Lifetime Achievement Award.
This article is based on a webinar for the Lakes Society of Maine in early June. You can watch a recording of that session with questions and answers here.