The ice is out and all is well with the world.
Or at least will be once the weather warms up.
To a lot of our lake-pocked state, ice out is a vaguely quaint concept that is one more sign spring — or Maine’s version of it — may arrive after all.
But in some regions, particularly in central Maine, it means more than that. It’s like hanging the “open” sign in the store window.
Maine’s lakes generate an estimated $3.5 billion of economic activity and 50,000 jobs a year, according to the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance.
Shorefront property taxes represent from 30 percent of the tax base for Belgrade region watershed towns up to a whopping 80 percent in some towns — like Rome — according to the BRCA.
The seven lakes in the watershed not only define the area, they sustain its 13 towns.
In towns like Belgrade, Rome and Smithfield, the lakes are the sirens that lure summer visitors and their money (let’s be honest) to otherwise sleepy communities.
As one of the area’s most eloquent visitors, E.B. White, wrote in 1941 of visiting Great Pond, “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake…”
Those who live and scratch out a living in the area know that if the lakes didn’t exist, if they weren’t attractive, they might as well be farm fields.
While White may have believed Great Pond and its brothers and sisters are “fade proof,” science knows better.
A lot of talk, money and effort has gone into eradicating milfoil, the invasive weed that threatens to choke the lakes, notably Great Pond and Messalonskee. The 20-year ongoing battle is keeping it at bay, with a lot of help from a huge education effort, contributions from area towns and constant hammering by the BRCA, Belgrade Lakes Association and other local lake organizations.
Milfoil is an easy bad guy. It’s the devil we see.
The devils we don’t see, however, are what will kill our lakes.
Charlie Baeder of the regional alliance and Lynn Matson of the BLA say it’s time to turn the attention to those other devils.
The problem is, it won’t be the cut and dried solution like the one for milfoil.
As another great literary figure, Pogo, said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Or more notably, the backwash of how we live.
Runoff from roads, from septic systems, from yard care, wood harvesting and farming pour into the Belgrade region watershed and are slowly deteriorating the lakes.
Baeder said that problems that add to the lakes’ deterioration are worse than an obvious culprit like milfoil, but are “one thousand cuts” and for that “we need one thousand fixes.”
Baeder and Matson recently sat down with some of the Morning Sentinel staff to talk about a 10-year plan to bring attention to the issue.
The foundation of the thousand cuts is phosphorus, which gets into the lakes in a variety of ways, from road sand to erosion to human and animal waste.
Erosion is made worse by development, roads, agriculture and forestry — the very things (besides the lakes) that help keep the towns alive.
East Pond has “recurrent nuisance algae blooms” an offshoot of phosphorus. Algae blooms can choke all the other life out of a lake.
Long Pond, which snakes through the Kennebec Highlands and is probably the most striking of the watershed’s lake, is considered impaired because frequent testing shows that increasing phosphorus has reduced water clarity continuously since 1970.
And the problems that damage the lakes are escalated in the village of Belgrade Lakes, which is on a strip of land, bisected by Route 27, between Long Pond, Mill Stream and Great Pond.
The lakes groups and others who have an interest in the lakes plan to form a steering committee soon to find ways to engage residents and businesses in focusing on ways to keep the lakes clean.
Early solutions are already underway, including Belgrade’s experimentation with lower salt and sand winter road solutions and the BLA’s Lakesmart program, which encourages lakeshore homeowners to plant erosion-adverse yards.
It’s easy to look at the lakes — seemingly pristine — and to believe like White did 63 years ago that they are “fade proof.”
The problem with the deterioration is that by the time it reduces the usability of the lakes, it’ll be too late.
Some of the solutions may cost money, but it will be nothing compared to the impact if the lakes stop being attractive to visitors and those who live along their shores.
“It’s a community problem,” said Matson. “It’s not just for the people who live on the lakes.
“If we lose the lakes, we lose the community.”
Maureen Milliken is the news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Twitter: @mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.