AUBURN — John Bonneau bought his home on Lake Auburn knowing he couldn’t swim in the lake. He was attracted to the beauty, regardless.

“I didn’t buy it to change things. I bought it because it appealed to me the way it is,” he said.

But, he admitted, his property value might increase if swimming were allowed.

As the Twin Cities embark on a mission to study the feasibility of building a water filtration plant at Lake Auburn, the decades-old issue has brought up lingering divisions over how the watershed should be managed, and whether a plant to filter the drinking water going to Lewiston and Auburn residents could help ease restrictions on recreation, including swimming, and lakeside development.

Bonneau, the chairman of the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission, has reservations that a new study will reveal something different from previous studies, which have shown a filtration plant to cost millions, adding annual operating costs that would drive up customer rates.

But, he said, more information and more studies are always welcome.

The issue hinges on a waiver of filtration that Lake Auburn has received since 1991, which allows the district to treat the water with ultraviolet light and other means without having to pay to filter it. In order to maintain the waiver, however, the district must meet strict state guidelines to preserve the quality of the water.

In past years there has been friction between the watershed protection commission, which was formed in the early 1990s to protect the lake, and some residents who have long thought the commission’s control over the lake has no bounds and leaves no room for sensible recreation.

A long list of prohibitions include ice fishing, sailboats, boats large enough to have on-board toilets or sleeping quarters, jet skis and sea planes, among other things. Kayaks and canoes are allowed but also carry certain criteria. The restrictions aren’t unlike many that exist on sources of public water throughout Maine.

The filtration argument bubbled back up this fall after an extended algae bloom at the lake led to taste and odor issues for most Lewiston-Auburn customers. Complaints rolled in of rank water tasting like cucumbers — and not the spa kind.

Sid Hazelton, superintendent of the Auburn Water and Sewer Districts, said recently that the algae known as synura, caused by an extended hot summer, kicked up the conversation again about Lake Auburn. He said in a way it has allowed the district to reinforce the importance of watershed protection efforts.

“It just brought everything to the forefront,” he said. “When your water is not pristine and what you’re used to having, it’s going to cause people to question what’s going on.”

‘NO PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS’

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque confirmed in mid-January that officials in the two cities had had preliminary talks on establishing a committee to look into possible water filtration and had received an informal blessing from the Auburn Water District trustees to move forward.

The new committee, he said, would be made up of four members from each community.

But while the committee has informal backing from both mayors and city administration, it has not yet officially been formed.

There’s also an unanswered logistical question of whether the two mayors have the authority to create and appoint a joint committee.

In each city, the mayor has the authority by charter to create and appoint temporary committees, but it is unclear whether that applies to a joint committee with members from each city.

Asked last week, Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said, “At the moment, I can’t answer the question.”

Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard called the venture a “task force,” describing the committee as having no decision-making or spending power.

“This is a task force for exploring a filtration plant,” he said. “We can word it however we want. This is something that should be done.”

While the push for studying the filtration plant has come mostly from Levesque, Lewiston city officials said they were not overly surprised by it.

Bouchard said that he had previously spoken to Levesque about Lake Auburn, and that city staff also had “an idea that this was a possibility.”

“I think the committee is a good idea,” he said recently. “This way, no one can ever say we didn’t try or didn’t look into it.”

But, he said, Auburn “sits in the driver’s seat” with the lake, and the potential for economic development around the lake, should a filtration plant be built.

He said that logistically, he and Levesque would be co-chairmen of the committee. He’s still working on potential appointees for Lewiston, saying he wants people who will be objective and will do a “thorough job with no preconceived notions.”

Levesque said he’s already selected three of Auburn’s four appointees, including Water District Trustees Dan Bilodeau and Andy Titus, who is also a city councilor. He also said he’d appoint Evan Cyr, chairman of the Planning Board.

Bilodeau, who owns 16 acres next to Lake Auburn and maintains miles of trails stemming from the Lake Auburn Community Center, has questioned the watershed oversight, and has previously criticized the watershed group over its acquisition of property and limits on recreational access, which are aimed at preserving the quality of the water.

This week, Bilodeau said the issue deserves exploration — not just for filtration, but to put data behind the watershed’s rules on lake recreation.

He said in the past he’s been labeled as wanting to develop the area, but he said his only interest is in recreation. Bilodeau is also the president of the Lake Auburn Watershed Neighborhood Association and trail master for the Perkins Ridge Sno-Travelers.

He said water officials are simply treating the lake as a “faucet,” rather than accounting for its recreational and economic value. He believes it can be both.

Judging from the taste and odor issues this past fall, he said, the watershed protection efforts aren’t working, despite the stringent rules.

He added, “If the faucet is starting to go bad, what do we do?”

Levesque has made it clear he believes it’s only a matter of time before Auburn loses its waiver. It’s not the first time an algae bloom as affected the water, and he believes it may become more common in the future.

Asked recently about whether his push for a filtration plant was a disguised attempt to open up the lake to development, Levesque scoffed, saying that each time the issue is brought up, development is used as a “scare tactic.”

Bouchard said the committee’s work would provide recommendations to both cities so that in the event “something happens with the waiver, we have the info and a plan in place.”

STRIKING A BALANCE

Hazelton, however, doesn’t believe it’s inevitable that the district will lose its waiver. Neither does Bonneau.

Last week at the Auburn Water and Sewer District office, Hazelton said Auburn has been looking at the cost of filtration for years, including a study in 2009 prior to the construction of the current treatment plant at the lake.

Kevin Gagne, deputy director of utilities at Lewiston Public Works, said the two cities were originally expecting to get 10 years out of the waiver, but have continued to meet the “source water quality” that’s needed to obtain it.

Despite that, Hazelton and Gagne said, it’s subject to multiple threats.

The water is treated with chlorine and ultraviolet light for disinfection and is adjusted for alkalinity and pH. The treatment plant also adds blended phosphate for lead control, and fluoride.

Recently, the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission released an informational poster presenting a stripped-down explanation of the commission’s role and the longstanding waiver.

Included in the poster is the projected cost of a filtration plant at $35 million, and $2 million per year for maintenance.

“If a new filtration plant was built, then … customer water rates would increase by 100-200 percent,” it states.

Hazelton said the timing of the poster was coincidental, and part of the watershed commission’s effort to get the word out on the fragility of the watershed and the importance of protection efforts.

Asked about the push and pull between watershed protection and recreation or development, he said, “We are constantly trying to strike a balance between responsible recreation on the lake and the watershed protection, and I think the two really are comparable. We do a number of things to make sure people can enjoy the lake, but our primary mission is to protect the water source.”

A filtration plant costing between $45 million and $50 million is in the works to service Saco, Biddeford and Old Orchard Beach. Its capacity is equal to what Lewiston-Auburn needs.

Based on recent estimates the local Water District has received, Hazelton is floating the middle-ground estimate of $35 million, but some estimates have put it at $45 million.

Levesque has said he’d like the new commission to look into alternative funding sources such as grants that could help pay for the project.

WATER DISTRICT CONTROL

Historically, according to water officials past and present, the rule of thumb is that it’s less expensive to keep drinking water clean in the first place than to allow it to be susceptible to contamination and then filter it.

Through the watershed protection commission, the Twin Cities’ water utilities pay to protect the land around the lake (and tributaries that feed it) from development. The watershed also includes areas of Turner, Minot and Greene.

The cities have worked to protect the lake’s water quality from the very beginning, starting with a “No Bathing” ban in 1877. Since the early 1900s, the Auburn Water District and the city of Lewiston’s Water Department have bought land around the lake to protect it from development, patrolled its shores and tested the water quality.

That resulted in the 1991 waiver from having to filter the water before sending it along to residents. The Auburn Water District and city of Lewiston formed the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission in 1993 to protect the watershed even more.

As of 2010, the commission owned or controlled 14 percent of the land within watershed boundaries and 81 percent of shore land around Lake Auburn itself. (The Sun Journal was not able to obtain the updated numbers prior to this report, but the commission has required more land since then.)

Bilodeau argued this week that although the lake is entirely located in Auburn, city officials in Auburn have little influence over what happens there. He said the city’s ordinances have “in the past been heavily influenced by staff from the water authorities,” and that city officials have limited seats at the table.

The Auburn mayor appoints a council representative to the Auburn Water District trustees, and the commission has rotating members from all municipalities within the watershed. Lewiston appoints a councilor to the commission.

What ultimately is allowed on the lake is determined by a set of Auburn Water District by-laws developed in 1991. The actual water quality at Lake Auburn is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

Erica Kidd, watershed manager at the Auburn Water District, said that although the water district can create by-laws regulating recreation on the lake, the EPA drinking water standards dictate any potential changes to the by-laws.

Bonneau said he’s been on the watershed protection commission for the past five or six years. He said the filtration discussion “seems to take place periodically,” and that he has no objection to studying it.

As for increased recreation, he said, the commission looks at each type and its impact on the lake. Ice fishing, for example, comes with risks associated with huts and vehicles on the ice.

“I would have to be told explicitly that (recreation) holds no risk,” he said. “But that’s why you do studies.”

According to Hazelton and Gagne, even if a filtration plant were to be built, it’s doubtful swimming or increased development could be allowed because of the conditions, the size of the lake, and the associated rise in treatment costs.

“Even if we were to build a filtration plant, that wouldn’t dissolve the commission. We would still need to protect the lake,” Hazelton said. “If we didn’t, it’s just going to drive up the cost of treatment.”

He said he often hears the comparisons to Sebago Lake, which serves as the drinking water supply for much of greater Portland.

The difference, he said, is that roughly 15 Lake Auburns could fit inside Sebago Lake. The entire “no trespassing” zone at Sebago is larger than the footprint of Lake Auburn. Sebago Lake is also significantly deeper, which provides a deeper intake for its filtration plant.

For a body of water of Lake Auburn’s size, Gagne said, increased runoff from potential development could increase the water turbidity, which is the level of suspended particulates in the water. And, he added, swimmers could foul the filters, driving costs up further.

“There’s no way you can filter the water, and (at the same time) put in marinas and let people swim in the lake and sell the land and put up hotels,” Hazelton said.

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