CHINA — The Kennebec Water District’s plan to topple trees along China Lake has generated concern among some nearby residents and others who help manage the lake.

The KWD board of trustees voted in 2019 to have its property along the lake included as part of the state’s Tree Growth Tax Program, which would allow the district to receive tax credits totaling up to $40,000 a year, according to Roger Crouse, the district general manager.

Lawmakers in 1972 adopted tax incentives to help landowners maintain the property as productive woodlands and support Maine’s wood products industry, according to the Maine Forest Service.

The law gives landowners eligible for the program tax credits for developing a woodland management plan that includes “well-planned harvests over time.”

KWD was moving forward with its own harvesting proposal when a group of a dozen people representing various organizations, including the China Lake Association, submitted a letter earlier this month asking that trees within 100 feet of the lake or on steep slopes in the shoreland zone not be cut down. This would better protect water quality, the letter reads.

Land within 250 feet of the lake is considered the shoreland zone.

The letter asked that no more than 25% to 30% of trees in the shoreland zone be removed, rather than the 40% maximum permitted by the state program.

The district is planning on removing trees on the South Narrows peninsula, which is near the southern part of the lake.

At a district board meeting last week, Judy Stone, a professor at Colby College in Waterville and an abutter to the district’s land on the peninsula, urged the panel consider the difference between managing a healthy woodlot and the importance of buffer zones around the lake.

“I would argue that these buffer strips shouldn’t be managed the same as a woodlot,” Stone said.

The board discussed the earlier letter and agreed a response from the KWD staff be reviewed at its next meeting Jan. 6, before cutting begins later this winter.

“I think their letter is reasonable,” trustee Jeff Earickson said at the meeting.

Earickson said he has always been “queasy” about a harvesting plan presented in September by Comprehensive Land Technologies, a South China-based company that specializes in commercial land clearing. The water district is working with the company to develop the plan.

The intention is to protect and enhance water quality by selectively harvesting timber and developing an “uneven aged, mixed species forest.” This type of forest provides more efficient buffers to prevent nutrients, such as phosphorus, from entering the lake, according to details of the Comprehensive Land Technologies plan reviewed by the district’s board.

The 34 billion-gallon lake is the drinking water supply for almost 8,800 customers in Benton, Fairfield, Oakland, Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow, and provides fire protection when pulled through any one of 634 hydrants, according to KWD.

The water district began buying land around the lake in 1909, Crouse said at last week’s meeting.

“For 110-plus years, we’ve been protecting the water quality of China Lake,” he said. “I don’t think these two have to be mutually exclusive — tree growth and water quality.”

There is time to review the harvesting plan because KWD can still see tax benefits if it has a proposal in place, trustee Allan Fuller said during the meeting.

“You’re not required to cut the land right away when you put it in tree growth,” Fuller said. “Tree growth can go out 40 years or so.”

KWD owns about 345 acres on the north and south peninsulas of China Lake, according to a forestry management plan presented in 2019 by Comprehensive Land Technologies.

The harvesting plan only proposes to cut in the 65-acre wooded area of the South Narrows peninsula that separates the West Basin of the lake from the East Basin.

There is also productive forestland on the North Narrows peninsula, but there is no plan now to harvest in that area.

Members of the China Lake Association, a China Select Board member, a founding member of the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust and abutting landowners were among those who signed the letter suggesting changes to the harvesting plan.

The letter noted their signatures do not reflect the view of their various organizations, only individual opinions on the matter.

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