Tag Archive for: China Lake

China Lake water quality remains consistent

Photo courtesy of Lakes of Maine

by  Robbie Bickford,
Water Quality Manager, Kennebec Water District

In the winter of 1902-1903, an epidemic of typhoid fever in the Waterville area resulted in an estimated 371 cases of typhoid with 40 deaths. Public health experts of the time determined the cause of the typhoid fever to be the drinking water from the Messalonskee Stream being distributed by the local water company.

Disposal of raw sewerage from Oakland and parts of Waterville was continually contaminating the Messalonskee Stream with human waste. To help protect public health the Kennebec Water District (KWD) was formed in 1899 and took ownership of the local water company’s assets in 1904. Prior to taking ownership of the system assets, KWD Trustees determined that the use of Messalonskee Stream had to end. As noted in the 1906 Annual Report of the Trustees, the Trustees determined “that we ought to take no chances with the sewerage of Oakland.”

After evaluating options, China Lake was determined to be the best source of supply for KWD. A pipeline was constructed, and water began to flow from China Lake to Waterville in May 1905. Sense then KWD has been committed to protecting the water quality of China Lake.

To this day, China Lake continues to be KWD’s sole source of supply providing drinking water for over 22,000 people in five communities. KWD has worked diligently throughout the years to protect and improve the water quality in China Lake by supporting and implementing many different initiatives. The two main areas of focus on over the past year have been (1) land management of the approximately 344 acres owned by KWD surrounding the West Basin and (2) increasing the already extensive water quality sampling KWD regularly conducts.

To help ensure land owned by KWD is managed to promote the highest possible water quality, KWD contracted with Comprehensive Land Technologies, Inc. (CLT) in 2019 to develop a Forest Management Plan that assessed the overall health of the forest and provided forest management recommendations. As part of this management plan, a harvesting plan for the South Peninsula was developed in 2021 focusing on improving overall forest health by promoting an uneven-aged, mixed species forest. Due to some unexpected delays and an early Spring, the selective harvest of the South Peninsula was postponed until Winter 2022-2023. Another recommendation completed in 2022 from the forest management plan was the planting of over 6,000 seedlings within six acres of fields owned by KWD. These fields were located directly adjacent to China Lake on the North Peninsula and once established, this expanded forested buffer will help limit erosion and trap nutrients and contaminants in runoff before they reach the water.

Throughout the summers of 2021 and 2022, KWD sampled three locations (one in each Basin) every two weeks for many water quality parameters such as transparency, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, and algae within the water column. The results from this testing, compared to the past 10 years, indicate the water quality in China Lake remains consistent. While the data illustrates that water quality is not declining, it is also not improving appreciably. Therefore, there is a need for continued collaborative work by the users of this important resource.

KWD’s staff and Trustees remain committed to preserving and enhancing the water quality of China Lake. KWD’s work over the past year is vital to this ongoing effort. More information about KWD and its commitment to China Lake can be found at www.KennebecWater.org. Specific questions can be emailed to Robbie Bickford, KWD’s Water Quality Manager at RBickford@kennebecwater.org.

CLA annual meeting celebrates 50 years of Clean Water Act

The China Lake Association leadership team, from left to right, Secretary David Preston, Vice President Eric Lind, and President Stephen Greene. (photo by Jeanne Marquis)

by Jeanne Marquis

The China Lake Association (CLA) annual meeting was held Saturday morning on July, 30, 2022, in the China Middle School, on Lakeview Drive, in China, Maine. The meeting was both a celebration of the alewives return to China Lake and a tribute to the 50-year anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

Senator Susan Collins, Senator Angus King and Congress­woman Chellie Pingree sent video statements to the annual meeting congratulating the association’s positive impact on China Lake and supporting the work ahead to maintain the water quality. Senator Collins expressed that maintaining fresh water lakes such as China Lake is an important investment in our future. Senator King mentioned the connection the Muskie family personally had with China Lake owning a camp on its shore.

Pingree stated, “It was our fellow Mainer, Senator Ed Muskie, who wrote the clean water act half a century ago. Since then, it has been directly responsible for restoring and maintaining waters across the nation including right here in China Lake. Senator Muskie would be proud to see how much progress all of you at the China Lake Association have made to restore and protect the lake’s water to continue implementing the provisions of the Clean Water Act.”

The annual water quality report for China Lake was presented by Robbie Bickford, Water Quality Manager of Kennebec Water District (KWD). According to Bickford, “The results of the testing indicate China Lake is maintaining a steady state with a slight improvement in water quality over the past 10 years.” The full report can be found in the KWD newsletter which can be accessed here on ChinaLake­Associa­tion.org.

Bickford also provided updates on two projects Ken­nebec Water District accomplished this past year and are ongoing to protect water quality. KWD, with help from a grant from Project Canopy, reforested six acres on land KWD purchased in the early 1900s. Working with residents down in that area, KWD planted about 6,000 little seedlings with a mixture of black spruce, red spruce and red pine. In the fall of 2021, KWD developed a harvest plan in conjunction with a forest management plan. The goal is to achieve a mixed age, multi-species stand on all KWD land to maintain sustainable erosion control. KWD postponed last winter’s harvest until the winter of 2023 due to the warm conditions. Bickford explained that ideally the ground should be frozen during the harvest to prevent as much soil disruption as possible.

Bob O’Connor

The annual loon count was presented by Bob O’Connor, CLA board member. O’ Connor mentioned he has been counting loons on China Lake for 33 years, a third of a century. He was pleased to announce the count is up from 25 to 34. O’Connor announced another loon project in the works to help increase the loon population.

Karen McNeil, an undergraduate studying wildlife ecology and an intern for Maine Lakes, briefly presented information about the Loon Restoration Project. This project is intended to increase the loon productivity, while decreasing the mortality through establishing nesting rafts in ideal locations. Bill Powell, CLA board member is leading this initiative for the CLA and plans to launch an artificial nesting raft next year on China Lake. They are looking for more volunteers to build and monitor the raft for signs of nesting and chicks. Contact the CLA for more information about how to get involved.

Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, made an upbeat presentation about the completion of the alewives restoration to China Lake and what this means to the regional ecology. This nearly ten-years-long project was headed up by the nonprofit organization Maine Rivers, in collaboration with the towns of China and Vassalboro, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Kennebec Water District, the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, and the China Region Lakes Alliance. The China Lake Alewife Restoration Initiative hopes to reclaim the balance of wildlife in the water, air and land that existed prior to the dams construction centuries ago by restoring alewife passage. For the first time since 1783, alewives are making the trip from the ocean through the Kennebec River to China Lake to spawn. Nate Gray, a scientist with Maine Department of Marine Resources, manufactured a fish counter to get initial counts. The numbers of alewives making it through the fishways at the Box Mill Dam reached expectations.

Eric Lind, vice president of CLA, spoke about the 2022-2031 China Lake Watershed-Based Management Plan (WBMP). The plan outlines management strategies and a 10-year schedule of steps to increase efforts to reduce the external phosphorus load by addressing existing nonpoint source (NPS) pollution throughout the watershed and limit new sources of phosphorus from future development and climate change. The plan significantly reduces the internal phosphorus load through inactivation of phosphorus in lake bottom sediments, and monitors and assesses improvements in China Lake’s water quality over time.

The 2022 launch of the WBMP is the culmination of a two-year comprehensive watershed survey, performed with help from CLA volunteers in partnership with Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and technical leaders. The survey identified sources of pollution, which included an assessment of gravel roads and developed properties in the watershed. The information from the survey was used in China Lake’s ten-year watershed management plan; the plan will help the CLA qualify for federal funding grants under the Clean Water Act. The China Lake Watershed-Based Management Plan is available on the CLA website.

Why is a watershed based management plan important? As reported August 5, 2022, in the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal, North Pond, in Smithfield, in the Belgrade area, is experiencing extreme algae blooms that have diminished the water clarity to only four feet. People are advised by the state Department of Environmental Protect to limit lengthy exposure to the pea soup green water and to have no exposure when water clarity reaches only three feet. There was no watershed management plan in place for North Pond. The North Pond Association has recently received a grant to establish a plan.

The last speaker of the CLA annual meeting was Judy Stone, Colby College professor and LakeSmart Award property owner, discussing forests, buffers and water quality. Stone provided property owners with sound advice on maintaining a canopy of diverse trees and permeable ground foliage to capture and filter stormwater.

The meeting closed with a strong vote of confidence for the re-election of the current leadership team: President Stephen Greene, Vice President Eric Lind, Secretary David Preston. An opening exists for a treasurer to replace retired treasurer Elaine Philbrook. The board of directors includes Robbie Bickford, Wayne Clark, Bruce Fitzgerald, Marie Michaud, Bob O’Connor, and Bill Powell, all of whom serve with the officers as volunteers managing the business and conducting the affairs of CLA.

The China Lake Association stands for “Preserving China Lake for Future Generations Through Environmental Stewardship and Community Action.” CLA officers and directors hold monthly meetings to drive growth and development of the organization. Stephen Greene invites interested people to attend. Contact him at stephencraiggreene@gmail.com to attend board meetings, become more involved, or discuss your thoughts about CLA.

China Lake association president lays out 10-year plan to select board

by Mary Grow

China Lake Association President Stephen Greene is thinking in millions of dollars these days – but not to be spent immediately.

At the Dec. 20 China select board meeting, Greene updated board members on the draft 10-year China Lake Watershed-Based Management Plan, which he expects the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to approve early in 2022 (see The Town Line, Dec. 9, p. 1).

Stephen Greene

The goal is to continue improving water quality in China Lake, for environmental and economic benefits. The plan has six components, Greene said: reducing internal loading, the excess nutrients (especially phosphorus) already in the lake; reducing external loading by controlling run-off; preventing future external loading; informing and educating area residents; raising funds, locally and from other sources; and monitoring progress and results.

Absent specific plans, cost estimates are crude. Greene expects the external work to cost about a million dollars and the internal to add another $1.4 million.

One possibility for internal work is an alum treatment, a process in which aluminum sulfate would be added to the north end of China Lake’s east basin. The alum carries phosphorus in the water to the bottom of the lake and creates a barrier above phosphorus that is already in the bottom sediments.

Alum has been used in other lakes in Maine, including East Pond, in Smithfield, and in other states. Greene said more study, including more bottom sampling, is needed before a decision is made on whether a treatment would help China Lake.

He told selectmen the China Lake Association has turned over its ongoing programs – LakeSmart, Courtesy Board Inspectors, Youth Conservation Corps and Gravel Road Rehabilitation Program – to the China Region Lakes Alliance, so the Lake Association can focus on the management plan. He intends to ask for town funds in the 2022-23 budget.

Greene listed numerous cooperating groups and potential funding sources, from local organizations to state and federal governmental agencies. Asked if he had contacted the Town of Vassalboro, which surrounds part of China Lake’s west basin, he said no, but Vassalboro should be included.

Greene did not ask selectmen to take any action at the Dec. 20 meeting.

Other issues did require action, including voting to:

  • Appoint Trishea Story a full member of the Tax Increment Financing Committee, on which she has been the alternate member.
  • Appoint Stephen Nichols China’s Emergency Preparedness Director, with approval from Town Manager Rebecca Hapgood, who has had the position with Nichols as her deputy.
  • Maintain the present employees’ health plan for another year, with four board members in favor and Blane Casey dissenting (see The Town Line, Dec. 9, p. 3).

Hapgood called board members’ attention to the DEP’s Dec. 15 notice that PFAS testing will be conducted in China, to see if any land is contaminated with the “forever chemicals,” (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).

The letter says DEP staff are working with Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry staff to locate any farmland in China where sludge or septic waste might have been applied. A state law that became effective in October prescribes and describes the investigation.

A copy of the letter is on the Town of China website, china.govoffice.com, under the sub-heading “Public Notices” under the “About” tab.

As part of 2022-23 budget preparations, Hapgood asked whether the current police services are satisfactory. China is now paying $65 an hour to the Kennebec Sheriff’s Office for 10 hours a week extra coverage, in addition to the service provided by KSO and the state police.

Select board members are satisfied. Wayne Chadwick asked whether a contract could be signed, to help with longer-range budgeting.

Deputy Ivano Stefanizzi said coverage is provided 24 hours a day; there is no change-over gap between shifts. He and his colleagues continue to stop many speeders between 4 and 7 a.m., he said.

If select board members decide not to revive the town police department, they are likely to ask voter’ permission to sell the town-owned police vehicle.

Hapgood said no bids had been received on the Harley-Davidson motorcycle the town has taken as part repayment of a loan from the Tax Increment Financing Revolving Loan Fund. She recommends trying again in the spring.

The next regular China select board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.

China Lake Association updates public on 10-year watershed plan

by Eric W. Austin

On Thursday, December 2, the China Lake Association hosted a two-hour Zoom webinar to present the public with their 10-year plan for the China Lake Watershed. The plan represented work over a two-year period by multiple organizations to survey the China Lake watershed and develop a plan for preserving and improving it.

Stephen Greene

Stephen Greene, president of the China Lake Association, served as moderator for the event. Jennifer Jespersen, owner of the environmental consulting company Ecological Instincts, was the keynote speaker, with Amanda Pratt, of Maine DEP, presenting information about the recent watershed survey and moderating the question and answer session afterwards. Dr. Ken Wagner, a consultant from Water Resources Services, who Jespersen described as a “water professional specializing in the management of internal loading in lakes throughout New England”, was also on hand to answer questions from the audience.

China Lake Association president, Stephen Greene, introduced the evening by saying, “What are we trying to accomplish? In a nutshell, to restore water quality in China Lake, to end recurrent nuisance algae blooms. And why is this important? We all know that China Lake is the drinking water supply for 22,000 people. China Lake is the heartbeat of the community in the region. It is an economic engine. It serves as a large part of the tax base. It is home to people and wildlife in our community. It is a center of recreation.”

The previous watershed plan, formulated in 2008, was out of date, Jen Jespersen explained, and in order for local groups that do important restoration work in the watershed to apply and receive grants, the watershed plan must be updated every 10 years.

Jespersen began her presentation by explaining some of the problems China Lake is facing now and historically, along with reviewing some of the characteristics that make the China Lake watershed unique. Consisting of land in and around China Lake, both the east and west basins, 89 percent of the China Lake watershed sits within the borders of China, with nine percent in Vassalboro, two percent in Albion, and a tiny slice, making up only 0.1 percent, in Winslow. In total, the watershed includes about 27 square miles, with most of that surrounding the east basin (20 square miles). The surface area of the lake is about 6.2 square miles total.

The watershed is the area of land surrounding the bodies of water and determined by the sources that drain into the lake. Most of this area is forested (56 percent), with the remaining being wetlands (19 percent), agricultural areas (12 percent), developed land (11 percent) and roads (2 percent).

Water flows from the north end of the east basin, down the length of China Lake and then into the west basin (also known as the Big Lake), and into Outlet Stream which eventually drains into Sebasticook River and from there into the ocean.

Maximum depth of the lake is 92 feet in the west basin, and 56 feet in the east basin. Average depth across the lake is about 25 feet.

Screenshot taken from the China Lake watershed presentation.

Currently, China Lake is on the state’s list of impaired lakes because of the frequency of algae blooms, because China is considered a “high contact” body of water, and because of the high level of phosphorous and low oxygen levels detected in the lake. Part of the goal of the proposed 10-year watershed plan is to address these problems.

One of the problems China Lake suffers from is a lower than average flush rate. This is the rate at which all of the water in the lake is replaced by new water. Jespersen said that while the average for lakes in the state is between 1-1.5 flushes per year, China Lake is much lower at just .65-.72 flushes per year. This means that when pollutants are washed into the lake, it takes longer for the lake to flush them downstream than other comparable lakes.

Jespersen explained that they have arrived at their recommendations through extensive data collection, including Secchi Disc testing for water clarity at multiple stations around the lake, lakebed sediment testing, the collection of water samples to test for total phosphorus and Chlorophyll-a content, and water column readings, which test for dissolved oxygen in the water and also water temperature. This data is then fed into several data models to identify the best approach for management and restoration.

Algae problems in bodies of water like China Lake are directly related to the nutrient load on the lake. This “load” comes in two varieties: external load and internal load. The external load on the lake refers to the sources of nutrients flowing into the lake from external sources, including leaky septic systems, new land development and runoff from agricultural activity like farming and animal husbandry.

Impact overview of China Lake watershed. Screenshot taken from the China Lake watershed presentation.

The internal load is a bit harder to explain. This is the amount of nutrients already trapped in the sediment at the bottom of the lake. Some of this internal load on the lake is natural, coming from the decomposing bodies of animals, fish and plant matter that settle to the bottom of the lake, but much of it is also due to human activity. Today, there are regulations to manage the leakage of nutrients into the lake from things like land development and septic usage. But that wasn’t always the case. In the past, septic systems leaked directly into the lake, and no effort was made to reduce the influence of land development or agricultural activity on the watershed. Over time, these nutrients drained into the lake and built up in the sediment of the lake bottom, just waiting for the right moment to feed an explosion of new algae growth. That moment came in 1983 with the first major algae bloom, and this incident spurred regulatory changes to prevent it from happening again. But by that time we were already fighting a losing game against the internal nutrient load which had been building for years.

Because of this history, the China Lake Association and its partners must focus on the problem from two fronts, the external load, or the amount of new nutrients being fed into the lake, and the internal load, which refers to the nutrients already stored in the lake as a result of years of development and mismanagement of the lake’s watershed.

Algae blooms cause multiple problems. They can threaten the safety of drinking water for those residents that source their drinking water from China Lake. Blooms also damage the recreational and aesthetic value of the lake, and can negatively impact shoreline property values. Additionally, certain types of algae can be toxic to people and pets who come into contact with them.

The team’s research has suggested that the greatest impact on the west basin (the Big Lake) comes from sources in the east basin, and so dealing with the east basin’s internal load will result in the most improvement across both bodies of water. They have also identified the largest contributors of nutrients into the lake as a way to help formulate a management plan. For example, land used for agriculture makes up only 12 percent of the area of the watershed, but it contributes 38 percent of the nutrients feeding into the lake.

The goal of the proposed plan is to reduce the phosphorous in the east basin by 656 kg/year, a reduction of 7.5 parts per billion (ppb), and to reduce the phosphorous in the west basin by 229 kg/year, a reduction of 2.1 ppb. Currently, the total phosphorous in the lake, according to the ten-year average, stands at 17 parts per billion (ppb). This plan would aim to reduce that to 10 ppb, a significant reduction, which should, based on the data models the team is using, lower the probability of major algae blooms in the lake from 28 percent to 2 percent over the next ten years.

Screenshot taken from the China Lake watershed presentation.

Most of the questions asked by audience members after the presentations centered on the proposed alum treatment to address the lake’s internal nutrient load. This treatment involves adding aluminum sulfate to the lake which prevents the phosphorus in the sediment from being released as nutrients for potential algae blooms. Jespersen says that such a treatment could reduce the phosphorus in the east basin by as much as 90 percent, with an estimated cost of $1,445,000. She emphasizes that more analysis of lake sediment needs to be done to determine correct dosage for the alum treatment, which will also influence total expenses.

Ken Wagner, a consultant with Water Resources Services, addressed concerns about the treatment. While nothing is without risk, he said that aluminum is the second most common metal contained in the earth’s crust (after iron), and is commonly used as a treatment for drinking water. In fact, the companies that provide lake treatments are primarily involved in the treatment of drinking water.

Robbie Bickford, an employee with the Kennebec Water District, jumped on the call to confirm that aluminum is used as part of the KWD water treatment process.

Other proposals, such as oxidizing the lake to raise the dissolved oxygen level, or dredging the lake bottom to remove nutrient-rich sediment, were suggested by audience members. Dr. Wagner said that while such ideas have merit to achieve greater water clarity, both suggestions were discarded because of the enormous costs involved when compared to the expected improvements. An alum treatment is more cost effective, safe, and expected to provide benefits for 20-30 years into the future.

A question was asked about how the recent return of alewives to China Lake might impact water clarity. Dr. Wagner said he doesn’t think there will be a substantial impact either way.

Much more detail and additional information was included in the presentation than could be fit into this article. A recording of the presentation should be available on the China Lake Association website by the time this article is published.

(View the full presentation below or click this link to watch on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1RCFlW0sFw)

Managing lands for high quality water: Kennebec Water District’s Watershed Management

photo by Eric W. Austin

by Robbie Bickford,
Water Quality Manager,
Kennebec Water District

The Kennebec Water District (KWD) will be hosting a public informational meeting at 5:30 p.m., on Wednesday, December 1, 2021, at the KWD Water Treatment Plant, at 462 Main Street, in Vassalboro, to review the Forest Management Plan and the South Narrows Peninsula Harvest Plan. These are available for review on our website at: www.KennebecWater.org/Source.

China Lake (or “the Lake”) has been the sole source of supply for KWD since 1905. When the Lake was first used for drinking water, the land around the West Basin was heavily impacted by livestock pasturing and other agricultural activities. In 1909, seeing increasing development around China Lake, KWD began purchasing the shorefront land around the West Basin to protect the drinking water supply. Subsequently, thousands of trees were planted to reforest areas previously cleared for agricultural use.

Today, KWD owns approximately 344 acres of forested land in the China Lake watershed consisting of a nearly continuous, approximately 200-foot-wide, strip of land surrounding the West Basin and two larger plots of land known as the North and South Narrows Peninsulas.

To ensure that KWD’s watershed lands are managed to prompt the highest possible water quality in the Lake, KWD has contracted with Comprehensive Land Technologies, Inc. (CLT), of China, to assess the health of the forested land and develop a Forest Management Plan. Parts of this plan provide recommendations for improving the health of the forest through selective harvesting to prompt an uneven-aged, mixed species forest.

An uneven-aged, mixed species forest has been found to be the most effective buffer to limit erosion and to trap nutrients and contaminants in runoff as well as providing a more resilient forest to a multitude of pests and other adverse conditions.

In winter of 2021-2022 KWD anticipates conducting a selective harvest of the South Narrows Peninsula stand to promote new healthy growth and develop an uneven-aged, mixed species forest. This harvesting will have the primary goal of protecting and enhancing the water quality of the Lake as its focus and any harvesting activities will strictly adhere to industry “Best Management Practices” to minimize the impact on the land and lake water quality.

As always, KWD is committed to preserving and enhancing the water quality of China Lake and this approach to active forest management is the next step in the long line of efforts to achieve this goal. Any questions about the public informational meeting on December 1, 2021, or KWD’s efforts in the China Lake Watershed can be directed to RBickford@KennebecWater.org.

CLA to present 10-year runoff plan

China Lake

A 10-year plan to restore water quality in China Lake will be the focus of an online, interactive public meeting sponsored by the China Lake Association on Thursday, December 2, at 6 pm. The meeting will provide an overview of the proposed measures needed to minimize stormwater runoff into the lake, address internal phosphorus loading from lake sediments, and ultimately prevent annual algal blooms that have been occurring in China Lake over the last 40 years. The China Lake Association and their partners urge China, Vassalboro, and Albion residents, lake users, public drinking water customers, and all interested parties to participate in this free program. The public’s participation will help experts protect this valuable resource through the sharing of knowledge and by helping to shape the plan.

Register for this webinar here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/3916372725825/WN_ksBioidNQ6Weqo1KCBWsWg

These fish have been waiting 200 years for this moment

The Maine Rivers team at the location of the new fishway constructed at the head of Outlet Stream, from left to right, Landis Hudson, executive director; Matt Streeter, project manager; and Nate Gray of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. (photo by Eric W. Austin)

by Eric W. Austin

It’s been more than 200 years since an alewife has successfully made its way, under its own power, from the ocean and up the Sebasticook River to Outlet Stream before arriving at China Lake, but all that’s about to change. After nearly seven years of hard work, oceans of red tape, scores of harrowing town meetings, contentious public debate and skeptical property owners, the Maine Rivers team has succeeded in their efforts to bring a fish back to China Lake.

To understand the momentous nature of their success, we must travel back in time to examine the problem they were attempting to address when they first conceived of this project back in 2014.

As European settlers moved up the New England coast and into Maine’s interior in the 1700s, they naturally established communities along the state’s abundant water sources. Beyond their use as fresh water for crops and consumption, fast-moving rivers and streams provided a source of power for the growing lumber and agricultural industries. As a result, dams popped up everywhere. In Vassalboro alone, there were six dams along Outlet Stream, the egress for most of the water in China Lake.

These dams provided an important resource for growing settlements in central Maine, but they also had one major negative effect on the environment: by blocking the flow of water the dams also prevented fish from traveling between the lake and the ocean as they had been doing for thousands of years. Now, two centuries later, these dams no longer offer the benefits they once did, but they have continued to block the movement of migratory fish up and down our waterways. This has had an ecological impact on the food web in the lake and all the way along Outlet Stream to Sebasticook River and beyond.

Maine Rivers, a nonprofit group initially founded by the Natural Resources Council of Maine before becoming an independent organization in 2003, with a mission to “protect, restore and enhance the health and vitality of Maine’s rivers,” has been working with many local groups, including the towns of China and Vassalboro, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Kennebec Water District, the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust and the China Region Lakes Alliance, to remove these legacy dams – or build fishways around them – and free up the Outlet Stream for the return of migratory fish like river herring (alewives and blueback herring), sea lamprey and salmon, among others.

The core Maine Rivers’ team consists of executive director Landis Hudson, project manager Matt Streeter, and longtime resident of Vassalboro and Maine Department of Marine Resources’ employee, Nate Gray. I have had the pleasure of meeting with them twice before, in 2019 and 2020, to discuss their progress on this project.

“The fact that the one and only Nate Gray, who works for the Department of Marine Resources, lives in Vassalboro,” Hudson says about one of the reasons for their success. “You cannot find a person with any more expertise, connections and commitment. He’s been a leading light. Vassalboro is lucky to have him. The State of Maine is lucky to have him, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s hard to imagine a project of this scale being done anywhere else in New England.”

Over the course of the project, three dams have been dismantled, Lombard, Masse and — this year — Morneau, and three fishways have been constructed, at Box Mill and Ladd dams, and most recently, at the head of Outlet Stream.

Although Maine’s Department of Marine Resources has been stocking alewives in China Lake since the late ‘90s, the fish could not return to the lake for spawning because of blockages created by these dams along Outlet Stream and must be restocked every year. Nate Gray says he expects the lake can support about one million alewives, although that will fluctuate from year to year.

Alewives play an important role in the ecology of the lake and in the food web all along the water sources leading away from it. Their young feed on the phosphorous-rich plankton in the lake, and carry those nutrients with them back to the ocean where most are eaten by bigger fish. In this way, they serve an important role in maintaining an appropriate nutrient balance in the lake and their return should help increase water clarity over time.

One aspect of the project that doesn’t get enough attention is the work the team does after a dam is dismantled. From the head of Outlet Stream, where the team is finishing the final fishway, we traveled just up the road to the remains of Masse Dam to see how the landscape has changed over the years since it was removed.

A dam stops the flow of water and creates a pond behind it. When it is removed and the stream is allowed to proceed naturally, the pond drains and what is left is a broad, muddy patch of ground devoid of any vegetation. An important part of the Maine Rivers project has been to restore the ecology of these areas and nurture the healthy return of the original habitat. They have worked with the local Vassalboro schools, particularly the fifth and sixth graders, to plant native shrubs, trees and flowers that would have grown here before the dams were constructed.

“The more diverse the habitat, the more diverse the plants are, the greater the habitat value for insects and birds, rodents and everything else,” says project manager Matt Streeter, gesturing across the field that used to be the location of a pond behind Masse Dam.

The new fishway recently constructed at the head of Outlet Stream in Vassalboro. (photo by Nate Gray)

The Outlet Stream will also run cooler as a result of the dam removals, since standing water like the pools created behind the dams tend to heat up and carry that heat downstream. This cooler water should attract new species of fish that appreciate the colder temperatures, such as brook and brown trout. Eagles are already flocking to the newly opened waterway, which is a good sign.

And, of course, there are the alewives. Since the Department of Marine Resources have been stocking alewives in China Lake for years, they are already imprinted with the location of the lake and will return for spawning. This spring will see thousands of the fish fighting their way up the fishways in their efforts to start a new generation. (The best places to watch the alewife runs will be at either Ladd or Box Mill dams, as the fishway just finished at the head of Outlet Stream is not set up for public viewing.)

Executive director of Maine Rivers, Landis Hudson, says the expertise they have built in the team over the years of working on the project is their greatest asset. And their work is not done. “There are lots of opportunities in Maine for improving fish passage,” she says.

“There are thousands of dams around the state that are doing nothing useful,” confirms project manager Streeter.

So, let’s pause and appreciate the simple alewife. After more than 200 years, this is the moment they’ve been waiting for.

LakeSmart presentation from state director slated

Image Credit: chinalakeassociation.org

The China Region Lakes Alliance (CRLA) will sponsor a presentation by State LakeSmart Director Mary Wicklund on Maine’s LakeSmart Program, designed to help improve the health of Maine’s lake resources.

The meeting will be held Wednesday, October 20, 2021, at 6 p.m. (EST) at the portable classroom at the China Town Office Complex, and by Zoom.

All interested parties are invited to attend. For more information about LakeSmart, or to obtain the Zoom link, please contact (207) 200-8361.

China LakeSmart Program: Let’s Talk Lawns

photo by Eric Austin

The Challenge As a general rule, lawns don’t provide lake protection equivalent to other highly vegetated areas. Rainwater easily flows over lawns, and the tiny grass roots cannot hold soil together. Substantial erosion often occurs over lawns, even if no soil loss is noticeable. When nutrient rich soil reaches our lakes, there can be major consequences to lake health. However, with proper maintenance and design, landowners can have lawns while mitigating these lake-harming effects.

A lakefront property can maintain a beautiful lawn, while still being Lakesmart. These property owners include a large natural buffer between the lake and the lawn, add a defined narrow path, and strategically slope the lawn to avoid erosion. Additionally, they avoid fertilizers, and leave lawn clippings in place.

What to Do? Protecting your lake from lawn runoff requires quick infiltration into the ground. There are several ways to infiltrate lawn runoff effectively. Read on to learn more about what you can do.

Love your lakeshore buffer: There is no substitute for an effective vegetated buffer lakeside of the lawn. A multi-tiered buffer infiltrates runoff while holding the lake shore in place. Encourage native vegetation in the buffer and allow pine needles and leaves to accumulate.
Maintain your narrow, meandering path: The footpath from your lawn to the lake should not become a channel for water flow. Keep your footpath narrow and be sure it quickly diverts water off the path and into the buffer. Allow pine needles and leaves to accumulate on the path.
Where the slope is moderate or severe, consider infiltration steps as part of the path: Infiltration steps will stop water flow down a slope when fast-running runoff would otherwise cause havoc. It will also make walking your path safer.
Slope your lawn strategically: Keep lawn runoff away from the footpath, if possible, by sloping the lawn so water flows directly into an adjacent vegetated buffer.
Mow your lawn using the highest mower setting and leave clippings to mulch in place: Both techniques stimulate turf development, making your lawn more drought resistant. Clippings feed the lawn, eliminating any need to use fertilizer. (Maine soils contain enough phosphorous to sustain lawns without fertilizer in any event.) And longer grass maximizes its resistance to flowing water.

For more information about making your property more lake-friendly, contact Christian Oren at the Lakes Environmental Association. Christian can be reached at 207-647-8580 and christian@leamaine.org.

If you would like to have a trained China LakeSmart volunteer visit your lakefront property to give you ideas that would help to protect the lake from harmful runoff, please contact us at ChinaLakeSmart@gmail.com. The Youth Conservation Corp can offer assistance to help with any Best Management Practices!

China Lake Association; Protecting the Lake and Land Owners: Nonprofit Spotlight

Some of the attendees at the Invasive Plant 101 workshop, held in China on August 24, were, from left to right, Sonny Pierce, of Rangeley Lake Heritage Trust, Peter Caldwell and Marie Michaud, China Lake Association, and Spencer Harriman, of Lake Stewards of Maine. (contributed photo)

by Steve Ball

“The quality of China Lake has improved noticeably over the past five years. I can remember algae so thick on the surface that when I ran my boat I would leave a wake of algae behind me.”

Larry Sikora, China Lake property owner

Imagine the impact a polluted lake would have on the town of China and its residents. There was a day, in the late 1980s, when there was justifiable concern with the cleanliness of the lake. Many China residents likely remember the algae blooms resulting in low fish counts, few lake birds, limited lakeside wildlife, and sparse or distorted shore plant life. All these are indications that the health of the lake is failing.

The results of this condition can be devastating for a community like China and its surrounding towns that rely so heavily on its lake for its drinking water and attracting tourism and recreation, and, thus, growing economic activity.

In mid-1990s the University of Maine conducted an extended study of the connection between the health of Maine’s lakes, as measured in nutrient and cleanliness levels, and local economic growth. In the 1996 study, “Water Quality Affects Property Prices: A Case Study of Selected Maine Lakes,” the authors found what many lake residents have known for years, there is direct link between healthy waters and good economic viability. Everything from the direct economic impact resulting from lake usage, to the price of lakeside homes and camps and the town’s tax revenue generated from waterfront properties is either positively or negatively impacted by the cleanliness of the local lake. China Lake was one of the 34 lakes in Maine included in the study.

The other reality of addressing the health of lake waters is that remediating, or cleaning up a problem like algae bloom, or an overheated lake is far more expensive than preventing the problem.

It is for these reasons that the China Lake Association was formed in 1987. Their mission is simple: Through education, fund raising and other proper activities, to guard the waters of China Lake against pollution, to preserve the environmental health of the China Lake watershed and to protect and enhance the beauty of the Lake and its adjacent area.

The CLA has made a difference in this community through active and persistent action to help keep China Lake the clean, fresh lake that people in this community and our visitors have grown to expect. But that work needs people committed to rolling up their sleeves and doing everything from replanting lakeside vegetation to help minimize the effects of erosion and runoff, to managing the Boat Inspection Program, to studying the ways the lake is polluted and finding solutions, to educating youth and adults about the importance of having a clean and healthy lake.

Several people since the organization’s founding have helped to make this organization effective. Scott Pierz, the current president of the CLA is not only an avid champion for China Lake, he has become a student of what it takes to steward a healthy lake in Maine. Pierz, the former Codes Enforcement Officer for China, knows the area well and appreciates the impact China Lake has on nearly every household in the community.

A revegetation project China Lake Association supports working with fifth grade students in both Vassalboro and China schools. This project is organized by Matt Streeter from the Alewife Restoration Project. Nate Gray, from the Department of Marine Resources, is always present and Anita Smith, of China, presents the information on native plants. (contributed photo)

Of all the things CLA is involved in, the education aspect is one that seems to appeal to Pierz’s talents. He believes that if we can educate our middle schoolers about the value of keeping a clean and healthy lake our future is bright. The CLA has taught classes on loons, how a lake becomes polluted, and they’ve hosted a poster contest. In Pierz’s mind, “We are building a youth of informed citizens” who will know what it means to have a clean lake and, more specifically, what it means to the town of China to have a clean lake.

In addition to education and the Boat Inspection Program, the CLA has been actively involved in the China Lake Alewife Restoration Initiative, ARI. Knowing the value of a natural alewife population on cleansing fresh waters, the CLA has been a part of a program to restore passage for 950,000 alewives migrating from the Sebasticook River to China Lake. With the goal to remove obsolete dams that had obstructed the passage of alewives and construct fishways where necessary, the ARI has successfully restored an alewife population to China Lake. The results to the lake’s waters have been remarkable; noticeably cleaner water, higher bird counts and more lake plant life. The fish count is harder to determine, but some attest the fishing has been better.

Another undertaking started by the CLA has been the Gravel Road Rehabilitation Program. This was the brainchild of Pierz who saw that runoff from some gravel roads surrounding the lake was bringing damaging pollutants into the water. The project involves getting an engineering plan and then bringing together the manpower to assist with either diverting the runoff, or planting buffer plants, or re-grading of the roads; whatever it takes to prevent damaging runoff from entering the lake.

In addition, the CLA assists the state of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection in running the Lake Smart Program for China Lake property owners. Lake Smart, an education and reward program, provides assistance to lakefront homeowners to better manage landscapes in ways that protect water quality. Through the program property owners can receive a technical inspection with a proposed improvement plan by a DEP certified Soil and Water Conservation Engineer that can ultimately be enacted through CLA help and volunteer labor.

All of these programs and initiatives have two goals in mind; improve the quality of China Lake’s water and build a sustainable system to assure its quality in years to come. It is this relentless commitment to finding and carrying out ways to keep China Lake clean and healthy that has come to define the China Lake Association. The community may not see everything they do, and some residents may not remember what it was like when the lake was suffering from damaging algae blooms, but everyone should appreciate there is a nonprofit working in the community for the benefit of every citizen.

The Town Line will continue with a series on local nonprofit groups and their work in their respective communities. To include your group, contact The Town Line at townline@townline.org.