Friday, December 6, 2013
ONE OF MAINE'S most valuable natural resources is its 6,000 lakes and ponds, which are renowned for their beauty and water quality. Annually, these lakes are a $3.5 billion economic engine that sustain 52,000 jobs, generate substantial tax revenues for towns from shoreland properties, and provide drinking water for half of all Mainers.
It is their value environmentally and economically that makes protecting Maine's lakes in perpetuity paramount for the Department of Environmental Protection.
A recent report by the Natural Resources Council of Maine did not provide a complete picture of the measures being taken by the department in pursuit of lakes protection, and in some instances, restoration.
The report implies that fewer than five staff members work on lake protection issues, but this is simply untrue. The report does not recognize how differently the department is organized from how it was in years past.
Twenty-five years ago, a dedicated lakes division had its own staff, but today, within the Division of Environmental Assessment, we have an entire Watershed Management Unit that provides support to develop and implement plans to either protect or restore water quality by working in the watersheds of lakes and streams. This division has 22 staffers who work together to provide a much stronger, more holistic program than the NRCM report would leave one to believe.
In addition to the staffing levels, which were incorrect, other aspects of the report also are misleading:
The referenced report about Maine's Shoreland Zoning Law was a state of Vermont report and therefore it was not appropriate to include the DEP logo.
The website was indeed reduced significantly in size, but the department is continuing to assess what pages are important to have available and has replaced pages in a number of instances. This process started under the previous administration and will be ongoing.
Funding cuts that are referenced were not to the Lake Protection Fund, which is a dedicated account that was created to allow the state to accept outside donations. The 2011 cut was part of an across-the-board state government sweep of dedicated accounts, and did not target the Aquatic Invasive Plants Program.
While department management has requested that staff get approval to speak at outside events, such requests are approved routinely. A "gag order" has not been imposed on staff, but we seek a coordinated and centralized approach to outreach.
The department continues to support the Children's Water Festival and has sought to increase support from outside organizations.
The LakeSmart program was not terminated, but rather was transferred to the Lake Management Society, formerly called the Congress of Lake Associations, a group with which DEP has partnered on LakeSmart in the past. The department has been and is supportive of the organization's efforts to secure outside grant money.
The department continues to inform retail stores about the requirement to post signs regarding the use of fertilizer containing phosphorus. Letters and posters printed at state expense were sent to all known retailers this past spring.
We appreciate the opportunity to tell the true and complete story about our efforts to protect and improve Maine's lakes and will continue to focus our efforts on protecting Maine's vital natural resources and environment while ensuring a sustainable economy.
Donald Witherill is director of the Division of Environmental Assessment, Bureau of Land and Water Quality, Maine Department of Environmental Protection.