China Lake is seen from the Causeway Road in China. A new 10-year management plan is being developed in an effort to improve the water quality of the lake. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

CHINA — A draft of a water-management plan for China Lake was introduced this week that is meant to address poor water quality that continues to fall below state and federal standards.

The China Lake Association and China Region Lakes Alliance presented the draft Thursday of an updated 10-year plan — estimated to cost $3 million to implement — that’s intended to reduce phosphorus levels that feed potentially toxic algae blooms. They also provided the results of a two-year planning study that included a survey of property owners and an analysis of the watershed.

Jennifer Jespersen, owner of the Manchester-based environmental consulting firm Ecological Instincts, told the Morning Sentinel on Friday that the management plan is being finalized and must still be reviewed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The town of China will also be reviewing the plan.

The Kennebec County Soil & Water Conservation District hired Jespersen to help develop the management plan.

Once the plan is finalized, either the town or the China Lake Association will apply for a water pollution control grant from the DEP to prevent the “external loading” of phosphorus that comes largely from soil runoff into the lake.

“Water quality is a reflection of the watershed,” Jespersen said during the Zoom meeting Thursday.

She said the management plan has not been updated since 2008 and China Lake’s water quality remains a problem, although studies show that phosphorus levels have been dropping over several years. But there’s still too much phosphorus in the lake that contributes to algae blooms in the summer, less clear water and oxygen depletion that impacts fish and wildlife.

Much of the concern relates to swimming in the lake and other recreational opportunities, although the phosphorus levels can also be a threat to drinking water, contribute to a loss in property value and present health concerns in the form of toxic blooms.

Jespersen advised those on the lake to keep themselves and pets away from blue-green algae blooms that look like a “pea soup” in case they contain something called cyanobacteria. According to the DEP’s website, although small amounts of cyanobacteria can cause mild reactions in some people, serious illness is rare. However, severe reactions and deaths of pets or livestock drinking cyanobacteria-contaminated water have been reported in other states.

She noted the importance of China Lake as a center for recreation, as the the drinking water supply for approximately 22,000 people, an economic engine, and the “heartbeat of the community.”

Jespersen on Thursday outlined ways property owners in the watershed can prevent runoff and phosphorus loading into the lake. They include inspecting septic systems and regularly pumping them, stabilizing land by planting or mulching bare areas, maintaining roads and driveways, and creating vegetated buffers by the shoreline and working to divert stormwater into these buffers.

Becoming LakeSmart-certified is also an important way to prevent runoff into the lake. LakeSmart is a statewide certification and education program for lakefront property owners to minimize their impact on water quality.

Since 2009, 35 out of the approximately 1,300 property owners on China Lake have become LakeSmart-certified, Jespersen said.

Another phase of the management plan is to reduce the “internal loading” of phosphorus that comes from sediment at the bottom of the lake, particularly in the east basin. Jespersen said the most cost-effective solution is to treat the water at the bottom with aluminum sulfate that will reduce the phosphorus.

This is a standard treatment procedure that has seen success in other Maine lakes, including East Pond in Oakland.

This will likely happen in year four or five of the China plan and will help to stunt the No. 1 source of phosphorus.

Jespersen said Friday that management plans for many other watersheds and lakes in central Maine are also being updated to reduce algae, such as North Pond in the Belgrade Lakes watershed and Unity Pond. There are currently 21 lakes in the state considered by DEP to be “impaired.”

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