In this file photo from July 2012, fog settles across the western shore of Sebasticook Lake in the late morning. Credit: Brian Swartz | BDN

NEWPORT, Maine — Newport will have the first watershed study done on Sebasticook Lake in more than two decades to determine phosphorus levels and best practices to care for the lake in the future.

The Newport Select Board heard from the first of two environmental firms, FB Environmental Association, at its meeting Wednesday. Ecological Instincts will present to the board on Dec. 15.

Sebasticook Lake was heavily polluted with phosphorus starting in the 1950s for a number of reasons — including mills depositing waste and byproducts into the lake, irrigation practices and roadway construction, Town Manager Jim Ricker said. People became more aware of the deteriorating condition of the water in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although some of the problems that caused excessive algae growth and threatened fish and people have been corrected, Newport is pursuing a new watershed study to learn more about how to maintain the lake’s water quality.

“Technology has come a long way in the last 20 years,” Ricker said. “There may be some other way to address this phosphorus loading and these algae blooms above and beyond what we’ve done in the past.”

The Select Board will choose a firm to partner with — likely by Jan. 5, Ricker said — and dive into the grant writing process to acquire funding for the study. The last watershed study on Sebasticook Lake was published in February 2001.

Sebasticook Lake, which spans 4,288 acres, is the largest body of water in Maine whose entire lakeshore lies within a single municipality, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s watershed study. The study notes that the lake’s 23-year phosphorus database from 1978 to 2000 “represents one of the longest and continuous nutrient-based water quality records available for Maine lakes.”

Newport Town Manager Jim Ricker speaks during the Newport Select Board meeting Dec. 1, 2021, held via Zoom. (Screenshot | BDN)

“By 2001, most of the upstream companies had closed or were in the process of closing,” Ricker said. “That waste had gone away. Most of the septic systems were being repaired or replaced. Land spreading had ceased to exist.”

The study looked at what led to the lake’s condition in the early 2000s and provided recommendations on how to mediate the problems, Ricker said.

FB Environmental Association, a small business based in Portland, outlined its vision for a watershed plan to the Select Board. Eighty percent of the firm’s projects are in the public sector, owner and CEO Forrest Bell said. FB Environmental also is doing landfill monitoring in nearby Corinna.

Once funding is secured, FB Environmental would assemble a team to do boots-on-the-ground watershed and shoreline surveys to ensure a realistic plan of action, said Maggie Mills, watershed management and community planning lead.

“It’s important that our watershed plans are community-led and community-driven. … We’re able to come in and provide the scientific support and leadership to work through some of the state requirements,” she said.

FB Environmental will provide graphics and maps to present its findings in different ways that appeal to a variety of people, Mills said. She highlighted the firm’s diversity of expertise and said understanding biology, fish and aquatic organisms and the local geology are all important to crafting a watershed plan.

The firm relies on in-lake nutrient modeling, which “teases apart the contribution of phosphorus to the lake from different sources,” Mills said. “So is it coming primarily from the landscape, from erosion or derived from internal mixing in the lake and reaction of the lake sediment bottoms into the water?”

FB Environmental and the DEP are curious about internal loading, which is when sediments at the bottom of the lake slowly release phosphorus to the surface of the lake, Bell said. 

This project is about engaging more than just Newport residents because other watershed communities contribute water that flows into Sebasticook Lake, Bell said. He mentioned Corinna, Stetson, Exeter and St. Albans.

Select Board member Bruce Clarke asked how large the grant from the Maine DEP might be and what match percentage would make the project successful.

Bell estimated a grant between $30,000 and $60,000, though it varies. The match percentage is a wild card and depends on what DEP would allocate, he said. Bell has seen towns provide anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the funding.

During a Nov. 17 meeting, Chairperson Kate Rush said she thought a new watershed study should be a joint endeavour between the town and lake association, financially and in spirit.

“Everybody on this call and every resident in Newport enjoys the lake for different reasons,” she said at the time. “To maintain that and leverage that for the best use of citizens and all of our pleasures related to the lake, I think it makes sense to have a modern study behind that.”

High water quality is beneficial for not only the residents and town, but also from an economic perspective, Rush said.