Dredging eyed at locks, if funds can be found

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

NAPLES — Under increasing pressure from both boaters and environmentalists, state officials now appear to be willing to allow a limited amount of dredging to take place this summer next to the Songo Lock to combat a serious milfoil infestation there.

With that good news, however, comes the challenge of how to come up with the estimated $30,000 it will take to do the work.

Peter Lowell, Lakes Environmental Association executive director, told a gathering of around 20 state and local officials, business owners and residents meeting at the municipal complex Monday that Tom Dubois of MainLand Development Consultants has offered to pursue a Natural Resource Protection Act dredging permit with the Department of Environmental Protection. Lowell said he, Dubois and Naples marina operators attended a meeting on April 7 at DEP’s Portland office at which there was a “long discussion of dredging,” and that the result was that state officials were amenable to the idea of expediting the permit process to allow for a pilot dredging program right at the outlet of the lock.

“If you go out of the lock and steer starboard, it’s that mess on the other side of the river,” that runs around the corner around 2,000 feet, Lowell said. The permit would allow for the shoulder of the river to be dredged and the plants removed. Among issues that still need to be worked out is where to put the dredge spills, he added.

Naples Marina owner Jim Allen attended the April 7 meeting, and said it was very productive. Even though it was pointed out that there’s no extra money available in the state’s invasive aquatics program, he said, “Everyone in that room was in agreement that we need to dredge.”

Also on hand April 7 was the DEP’s John McFederan, who runs the state’s invasive plants program. McFederan said his office focuses on prevention, not eradication, and there’s no money available beyond what has already been committed for this year.

Lowell said buoy markers that were placed near the lock last summer to keep boaters away from the worst areas of infestation have helped, but aren’t enough to prevent the plants from getting caught in boat propellers. At busy times, a dozen boats or more are idling their motors in or around the milfoil pads in the narrow channel, waiting for their chance to go through the Lock.

“One of our inspectors last year held up a garbage bag full of milfoil that was taken off one pontoon boat,” Lowell said. “Even if you’re a decent driver, it’s not easy to avoid it, even with the buoy markers.”

Lowell said barriers will also need to be placed over the areas where the dredging takes place, “because there’s some concern (the milfoil) will come back with a vengeance in that good soil,” once it has been cleaned.

Lowell said LEA hopes there will be enough funds raised to survey the lower Songo River, to see where the future dredging needs are. “The lower Songo River is really loaded with plants,” he said.

Funds must come from a number of pots

Monday’s meeting was the fourth or fifth such gathering since February, when an outcry ensued after State Representative Paul Waterhouse (R-Bridgton) agreed to sponsor emergency legislation on behalf of LEA to close the lock this summer. After State Representative Rich Cebra (R-Naples) intervened, the bill was killed, and the meetings have been held as a way for LEA and boating interests to find common ground.

Lowell said LEA’s budget for milfoil eradication in the upper Songo and Brandy Pond is already stretched to the max, and that in order to do the dredging, additional funding sources must be found. “We’re going to have to take from a number of pots” to pay for the dredging, he said.

Among ideas discussed at the meeting were the following:

• Increase the current $6 per trip cost to go through the Lock;

• Seek legislative support for an increase in milfoil sticker fees, currently $20 for non-residents and $10 for residents; and/or seek a one-time registration fee for passive watercraft;

• Apply for additional funding support from grant sources such as the Libra Foundation, which has provided strong support for LEA’s milfoil eradication efforts on Brandy Pond for several years;

• Enlist the involvement and support of the Maine Marine Trades Association, a not-for-profit trades organization of marina owners and boatyards that could lobby for increased state funding for milfoil prevention efforts.

• Pursue a local option sticker program for boaters who use the Lock, as well as a voluntary fee at the time of boat registration.

Causeway Marina owner Dan Allen noted that up to 70% of the boat traffic on Long Lake and Brandy Pond is from out-of-state boaters, many of whom don’t pay to register their boats in Maine.

“What about the out-of-state boats? Every time there’s a problem, I am the first to open my checkbook” to help out, he said. “There’s over 1,000 boats on Long Lake in the summer. Maybe it’s time to look at the out-of-state boater registration law” and require them to register their boats in Maine.

Jim Allen said, “We need to look at every avenue, because I don’t think we’re going to get it through state or federal sources.”

Lowell added that LEA is also actively seeking more volunteers this summer to help their veteran suction harvesting crew so that it can operate five days a week. The organization also wants to increase the ranks of its trained boat inspectors at the lock to provide more coverage.

Barbara Clark of Naples, executive director of the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said she got “a ton” of calls from concerned business owners after the Lock closure bill was filed, leading to her involvement.

“It’s enough of an issue for the Causeway not being up to speed this summer (because of the major bridge reconstruction). If the Lock is closed, it will be an economic disaster. This can’t happen,” said Clark.

But Lowell said it could be an even worse economic disaster if nothing is done, and milfoil gains a foothold above the Lock and into Brandy Pond and eventually Long Lake. “There’s hundreds of millions of dollars in property value” that would decrease by an estimated 20% overall, if milfoil is allowed to spread to the two lakes, he said. “We’re trying to balance the shorter term economic impact (of closing the Lock) with the longer term impact (of the spread of milfoil).”

Lowell said it was heartening to see Naples Town Manager Derik Goodine step up to the plate, in advocating to the Naples Budget Committee to increase the annual town support of LEA from $5,000 to $7,500. “We didn’t even ask them to increase” the amount, Lowell said. “Naples has seen the light, and we’re beginning to bring Harrison and Bridgton folks on board. It takes time for people to connect all the dots.”

“We have the most to lose,” Goodine said of Naples, which depends so heavily on summer recreational boating for its local economy.

Naples Selectman Christine Powers said she’s often reminded by her out-of-state relatives how lucky Naples is to have an organization like LEA to fight against milfoil, which in other states has all but taken over most inland lakes.

The Songo Lock study group agreed to begin meeting every two weeks until a firm plan of action can be put into place, including a means of funding. Their next meeting will be on Monday, April 25, at 7 p.m. in Naples Town Hall.

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