LakeSmart, a program that seeks to improve lake health, has more than tripled in size this year, its first in the hands of a private nonprofit group.

The program, which gives official recognition to good stewards of lakefront property, was created in 2004 by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Trained LakeSmart evaluators visit properties and assign points for practices that benefit lake health, such as having a vegetative buffer along the water to slow runoff. The practice helps keep phosphorus from entering the water.

Phosphorus, a common ingredient in fertilizer that also is found naturally in animal waste, is valuable to farmers and gardeners because it stimulates plant growth. That positive turns into a negative, however, when the phosphorus is flushed into the water, where it can foster algae growth. When the algae multiply, they reduce water clarity and can create algal blooms, which can harm human health and kill fish. Generally, the less clear a lake’s water is, the less healthy it is.

Property owners who discourage phosphorus runoff get a LakeSmart award after an evaluation, while those whose properties are found not to meet the program’s criteria are given advice on what they could change for a future evaluation.

The hope is that well-meaning property owners will see the LakeSmart award sign in a neighbor’s yard and be motivated to go through the certification process as well.

During the nine years when the state ran the program, it was successful, but only on a small scale, involving a total of 33 lakes at one time or another. Last year, fewer than 10 of Maine’s 2,514 lakes had active participants.

In 2012, the department announced that it was transferring administration of the program to the Maine Congress of Lake Associations, an organization formed in 1970 as a statewide network of lake associations working to protect lakes.

The move saved the state money, but organizers also agreed that property owners would be more likely to participate if they were inviting a member of a lake advocacy organization onto their land to evaluate its level of lake-friendliness, rather than a state employee whose primary job is to enforce regulations.

Early indications are that the move was wise, with property owners on lakes statewide rushing to participate, according to Maggie Shannon, president of the congress.

“We leverage volunteers’ time and commitment to sense of place to reduce costs and spread the program more rapidly with in-lake communities,” Shannon said. “That’s the change in the business model.”

This year, she said, people from 36 lakes are active in LakeSmart, many of them responding to a push from the congress to get more volunteers involved in promoting the program.

The program also has attracted attention from other states. Shannon said environmental groups in Vermont have started a nearly identical program, called LakeWise.

“We’re looking at an enormous growth in participation,” she said.

Shannon said a training session for new volunteers will be held May 20 at the Maine Lakes Resource Center in Belgrade Lakes.

One volunteer, Mel Croft, of Smithfield, said he has performed dozens of property evaluations on East Pond, where he lives with his wife, Kathy Croft.

On East Pond, which has about 350 property owners, 30 have had their properties evaluated in the three years the program has been in place there, he said.

Croft, who is also president of the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, said one obstacle to participation has been a perception that state employees would cite the homeowners for possible environmental violations.

“There were some people who were afraid that, if they fail, their name would go the state,” he said.

Dave Gay volunteers as a coordinator for the Belgrade Lakes Association, which evaluated 48 properties last year. He said he no property owner has expressed wariness to him about the state’s involvement.

Gay said the program also benefits from a growing public awareness of problems such as invasive milfoil and reduced water clarity, prompting more people to seek solutions to them.

He said LakeSmart’s primary purpose is to get property owners’ attention in a different way.

“Our major goal is to educate the property owner about the water flow across the property and what the phosphorus that flows with it does to the lake,” he said. “If we can get that knowledge into the property owner’s hands, then the property owner has the tools to determine what they want to do.”

Croft and Gay said they are starting to receive phone calls from people interested in participating.

“I get a lot more calls than I used to,” Croft said. “It’s energized everyone.”

The state spent about $1 million, mostly on staffing costs and materials, to run the program over nine years.

Using that figure as a guide, when the transition to the congress began in November, Shannon estimated the group would need to raise $70,000 to operate LakeSmart for a year. The program spends money for administrative support, educational and training materials, and the signs.

The amount actually raised was $40,000 to $45,000, including grants of $10,000 each from the Davis Foundation and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Foundation.

Despite not meeting the $70,000 goal, Shannon said she has found the initial cost estimates were high, and the program is able to operate well on its current budget, partly because of volunteers’ support.

More money will be needed later if participation levels continue to climb, she said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.