Do you think about the lakes in winter? Maybe you ice fish or snowmobile, snowshoe or skate on the lakes. Maybe you think only of summertime activities. Maybe you don’t think about the lakes at all. Odds are you think about our lakes more than you realize. How can you not? We are surrounded by them. Some of us want you to think about our lakes now, and to think about them in some new ways.

Our beautiful lakes are the engine driving our local economy. Employees of convenience stores, groceries, gift shops, and restaurants, as well as landscapers, carpenters, caretakers, plumbers, delivery services and visitors. If water quality declines and the visitors go elsewhere, we all will feel the pinch. The lakes are to our region what the mills were to Madison and Millinocket — if they fail our local economy will suffer.

We all enjoy the scenery and prosperity the lakes provide. Do you realize they are fragile? Their water quality is threatened by our activities on the land around the lakes. We are loving them to death.

You might say, “I’m not on the lake, so what difference does it make to me if they’re healthy or not?” The health of the lakes impacts large numbers of us whose earnings depend on the influx of visitors and seasonal owners. Healthy clean lakes bring visitors. Green murky lakes do not.

The Lake Trust division of the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance (BRCA), comprised of members of all five lake associations representing the seven Belgrade Lakes, is interested in helping everyone who works, plays and lives here to know that what we do on the land around the lakes affects the health of the lakes. Our seven lakes — Messalonskee, Long Pond, Great Pond, North Pond, East Pond, Salmon Lake, and McGrath Pond — are all at risk.

What is the cause of this damage, you ask? It’s dirt. Plain old innocent-looking dirt, as well as excess fertilizer and other chemicals.

Our activities, and the sheer number of us doing them, wear down the land. Timbering. Clipping, raking and removing undergrowth to bare fragile soil. Launching boats. Wake-making runs that rip up the shore and violate the 200-foot no-wake zone.

All of our activities open pathways for stormwater runoff. Rainfall and snowmelt move dirt downhill and through the ground. Stormwater runoff cuts into the slopes. The cuts become ruts, ruts become gullies, gullies become streams. Flowing water picks up and carries natural and human-made pollutants, many of which stimulate plant growth. The pollution ends up in lakes and rivers, wetlands and ground water. Unlike flowing rivers, lakes hold their water for a long time. Stormwater carries nutrient-laden soil into the lake; nutrients promote algae growth and produce nasty green water.

Our beautiful lakes have been hurt by a thousand cuts. Big cuts — clearing, road runoff, and farming — and ittle cuts — sweeping litter and spills into storm drains, launching boats from the yard. Many actions, big and small have upset the natural balance. Erosion is a force of nature. We cannot eliminate it. But if we think about erosion, how stormwater behaves as it drains downhill, we can do things to change its impact on water quality.

We can re-direct the flow of stormwater or slow it down so pollution-laden dirt stays on the land and out of the water. We can keep it clean by properly disposing of used oil, antifreeze, paints and other chemicals. We can use detergents and household cleaners that are low in phosphorus. We can have our septic systems inspected and pumped at least every three to five years. Shoreland owners can find these and other LakeSmart tips for maintaining ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas at mainelakessociety.org/lakesmart.

In town, we need to keep litter and debris out of street gutters and storm drains — these outlets drain directly to lake, streams, rivers, and wetlands. Use lawn and garden chemicals sparingly and according to directions.

We all have a role to play in keeping lakes clean. Stay tuned for news and events that focus on water quality. Tell elected officials to support legislation that protects our land and water. Talk to friends and neighbors, share tips for managing stormwater runoff. Patronize those local businesses that sponsor our lake associations and events — they know the role healthy lakes play in keeping our community strong.

Erosion is a force of nature and our lakes are the retention ponds for all our pollution. If you understand that fundamental connection, you will understand that everyone in the 180-square-mile watershed can affect these lakes just as they enjoy thinking about and using them.

Christie Souza, of Oakland, is a board member of the McGrath Pond-Salmon Lake Association. This is the first in an occasional series of articles about the importance of the lakes in central Maine. She can be reached at: [email protected]