A proposal that would have charged some central Maine utility customers an extra fee to help pay for efforts to restore China Lake is dead in the water.

A legislative committee recently voted down the bill, L.D. 55, which was sponsored by Rep. Tim Theriault, R-China, and would have added a $5-per-year surcharge to the bills of each Kennebec Water District meter customer for 15 years. The plan was to let the town of China use the money to fund projects that would improve the quality of China Lake, which is the source of the district’s water.

The legislative committee on energy, utilities and technology voted at a March 2 working session that L.D. 55 ought not to pass, after testimony from water utility district officials who said the proposal represented an “unprecedented” change in how utilities’ rates are set.

“It scared the bejesus out of them,” Theriault said, referring to the utility companies’ reactions to the bill.

Theriault, however, said this week he wasn’t surprised to see the bill fail. “I kind of knew it wouldn’t pass,” he said Monday, adding that he was trying to “think outside the box,” and that’s part of why the idea was “tough to broach.”

China Lake’s water quality took a nosedive in the 1980s when an increase in residential development created more runoff into the lake, contaminating it with phosphorous. Around that time, algae blooms increased and the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed the lake an “impaired water body.”

Theriault’s proposal drew criticism from the Kennebec Water District, the Portland Water District and the Maine Rural Water Association. The bill was basically “taxation without representation,” said Jeff LaCasse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District, which serves users in Waterville, Winslow, Vassalboro, Benton and Fairfield. LaCasse, as well as some members of the district’s board of trustees, testified against the bill at a public hearing held by the legislative committee.

Theriault said he researched how utilities set their rates beforehand and knew it would be tough to introduce this new concept. Still, proposing the bill raised awareness among the legislators about the need for restoration money for China Lake, he said.

“We’re a town of 4,200 people (in China) who put $30,000 in each year” toward restoration efforts, he said. “It doesn’t seem fair that a company with 30,000 customers pays less.”

LaCasse, however, said in an emailed statement that the water district “has already done far more than any other entity to protect the water quality of China Lake,” including planting a forest buffer on the west basin of the lake and funding water quality projects. The district also has had to install an infiltration facility because of the lake’s poor quality, which costs customers and the district greatly, he said.

Theriault said most water district users who called him, upset about the proposal, were fine with the idea when he explained the cause and the price — $1.25 per billing cycle. The town would be able to raise $43,000 per year from the surcharge, he said.

LaCasse said he has yet to come across a water district customer who was in favor of sending money to China for restoring the lake.

While Theriault doesn’t plan to propose additional legislation for the cause right now, he said he did call the Kennebec Water District to see if it would put a voluntary lake restoration donation checkbox on its billing to customers.

The proposal will be discussed at the next water district board meeting, but LaCasse said the bills used now are not set up to accommodate a checkbox. It would be a “significant cost” to modify them, he said, adding that he suggested Theriault set up a donation platform through the town to ask for contributions from those in the Waterville area.

Many people don’t know that their water comes from China Lake, Theriault said. He’s been mulling over the idea of a public campaign to raise awareness about the issue, he said, but has no plans about that for now.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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