Help watershed, donate an easement

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — Trees are nature’s water filtration system.

Therefore, the more forested areas around Sebago Lake, the greater the benefit to the lake’s water quality.

Portland Water District (PWD) provides that clean, unfiltered water to 200,000 consumers in 11 communities, including the Town of Raymond. The water is transported along 1,000 miles of water mains. The lake holds a trillion gallons of water; and, PWD draws on about one foot of that a year.

That is according to Paul Hunt, the environmental services manager at PWD.

“Why does the forest matter? It absorbs the water, promotes infiltration, and removes nutrients,” Hunt said, adding too many nutrients are harmful to the lake and its inhabitants.

While the watershed that feeds into Sebago Lake is mostly forested or has low-density, rural development, this does not mean that clean water is guaranteed in the years yet to come, he said.

On Monday, Hunt spoke to members of the Casco Open Space Commission about the history and the future of Sebago Lake. The presentation was sponsored in collaboration with Loon Echo Land Trust.

Currently, PWD’s Board of Directors has a mission to purchase conservation easements so that the district can continue to protect the quality of the H2O upon which so many people rely. PWD would not own the easements, but it would assist landowners with the costs of putting parcels of land into conservation districts, he said.

The future of Sebago Lake is linked with the fate of private forested lands, he said.

Creating Watershed Conservation Districts

According to Hunt, about 8% of the watershed is conserved, and the PWD’s objective is to increase that percentage.

Over the years, the district has bought the land around the lower bay, or south end of the lake, which is located in Standish.

“We work with land trusts and private landowners. We have helped landowners with out-of-pocket costs. If people want to donate land and put it into an easement, there are still costs,” he said.

Over the past 15 years, PWD has acquired 10.53 acres and spent $2 million doing that.

“The major cost is buying the land because it is right on the water,” he said.

Even though people owning shoreland lots in the Lower Bay cannot lawfully swim in the water, it is permissible to have a dock and boat in that area of Sebago Lake. So, that land still has a high market value.

Over the same time period, PWD conserved 1,448 acres at the cost $45,150, Hunt said.

Therefore, by comparison, it is much more economical for PWD to put acreage into conservation districts than it is to do outright purchases.

“We are starting to see more requests” from people willing to put watershed land into a conservation easement, Hunt said.

“A municipality could come to the board with a request to create an easement,” he said.

Landowners could contact Loon Echo Land Trust (LELT) or PWD to make land contributions. Someone has to hold the easement, and a land trust is set up to provide that.

Hunt explained in detail how PWD would evaluate a conservation easement proposal.

“Landowner’s intentions are most important. The district will not own it,” he said.

The factors that are considered are the location of the property and the characteristics of the land.

“If the land is within 500 feet of water body, PWD considers that the most valuable,” Hunt said.

The upland areas contribute the least, so the percentage of financial assistance would be less, he said.

The distance from water bodies is an important factor. Also, if the landowner is willing to grant public access is a plus.

“We value that. When land is conserved and offered for public access, it is a lot more accepted by the public,” he said.

“It always has to be reviewed by the (PWD) board. We have been doing this for six years; and, during that time, only one property was not approved by the board,” he said.

Where does PWD get its money?

According to Hunt, PWD is funded by its water revenues. The income is derived from selling water to customers.

“We generate $20 million. But that is about what we spend in operations,” he said.

PWD is a quasi-nonprofit organization. It is required by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to turn a percentage of its revenues toward water conservation.

“We are trying to establish a percentage of the watershed for perpetuity so that it exists in another 100 years,” he said.

Projecting ahead to 2037:

One of the goals that went before the PWD’s board approval was the establishment of watershed conservation districts.

Hunt said that he gave a presentation to the board of the timeline associated with preserving a larger percentage of the watershed. And, the board was willing to fast track the process, and secure high-quality water for the future.

“If 4,364 acres were to go under easement, then 10% of watershed would be protected,” he said.

“If we were to contribute more money, that would accelerate the pace,” he said.

“If 28,150 acres were to be protected, then 18.5 percent of the lake’s watershed would be preserved,” he said.

However, the district would spend about $252,245 during that 25-year period.

He said the directors liked the idea.

“The district trustees looked at what had happened in a 5-year period. They said, ‘We like what is happening, but it needs to go quicker,’” Hunt said.

In other parts of New England, the public water drinking supply has a larger percentage of conserved land surrounding the resource, Hunt said.

For example, Quabbin Reservoir water supply in Belchertown, Mass., is 95,000 acres, and 57% is owned by the water supplier. In York County, the water body measures 2,100 acres, with 86% owned by the water suppliers.

Sebago Lake encompasses 300,513 acres with 8½% controlled or preserved by PWD.

Stellar water quality

Sebago Lake is only one of 30 water bodies in the nation from which water is provided without going through a filtration process, Hunt said.

While many tests are conducted to measure water quality, one of the more well-known examination is for fecal Coliform bacteria.

“Any water will have a certain amount because of birds, deer, and everything else in and around the water,” he said.

The Water Safety Act requires that 90 percent of time, the sample has to have less than 20 colonies of the bacteria growing on it.

The test has been done 4,600 times in the past 80 years, which means that it could have been above the 20 bacteria colonies count 460 times, and still met standards.

However, in 80 years, only two samples have exceeded that count, Hunt said.

“The water has such a mass that it is able to clean itself. The lake is very resilient,” he said.

“Sebago Lake has some of the cleanest water in New England,” he said.

He added that Sebago Lake’s continued health is not a guarantee. Willing landowners could be the key to maintaining an excellent drinking water source starting at the source — the watershed, he said.

“Our primary goal is clean drinking water,” Hunt said.

 

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