Jennifer Jespersen from Ecological Instincts gives a presentation to the Newport Select Board  about pursuing a watershed study during a meeting via Zoom on Dec. 15, 2021.  Credit: Screenshot / BDN

NEWPORT, Maine — The Newport Select Board will choose one of the two environmental firms it interviewed to pursue grant writing and secure funding for a watershed study on Sebasticook Lake in January.

Members heard from Jennifer Jespersen, the owner of Mount Vernon-based Ecological Instincts, at their meeting via Zoom on Wednesday evening, on how her team would approach the project. FB Environmental Association presented to the board on Dec. 1.

Sebasticook Lake has endured excessive phosphorus pollution over the decades, which began in the 1950s due to agricultural and irrigation practices, mills depositing waste into the lake and other reasons. The last watershed study on the 4,288-acre body of water was published in February 2001. Newport hopes fresh data from the lake will reveal a clearer picture of phosphorus levels and water quality, along with practices to care for its algal blooms and other problems in the coming years.

A file photo from July 2012 shows Sebasticook Lake in Newport. (Brian Swartz | BDN)

Ecological Instincts, a woman-owned small business, formed in 2015 and specializes in the development of watershed plans. One-hundred percent of the grants Jespersen has written have been funded for lake associations and municipalities across the state, she told the board.

In 2012, Jespersen led field assessments in cooperation with one of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s projects to examine the conditions of Mulligan Stream, which is north of Sebasticook Lake.

The firm is working on projects at North Pond (in Smithfield), Unity Pond and China Lake, which like Sebasticook, are all impaired lakes, meaning they don’t meet state water quality standards, Jespersen said. In Sebasticook, water clarity readings are less than 2 meters (about 6.56 feet) and the lake is experiencing ongoing algal blooms, she said.

“What we want to do with developing this management plan is to get an understanding of the current sources of pollution. … It’s been a while. It’s time to look at what’s happening now, on the ground and in the lake,” Jespersen said.

A new watershed plan allows Newport to raise awareness of current issues and to build public support for restoring the lake. The goal of the plan would be to push Sebasticook Lake’s average of 24 parts per billion phosphorus concentration closer to 10 ppb, Jespersen said.

Similar to FB Environmental Association, Jespersen’s firm would supply geographic information system maps to present its research. Field assessments and watershed modeling would help the firm develop strategies to improve water quality.

“All of our watershed plans are scientifically sound and written in a way that the general public can understand. … That’s what I like to do — make complex things simpler to understand,” Jespersen said.

Select Board Vice Chairperson Donna Berry asked about the firm’s success rate in working with farmers and sources that contribute to issues in the lake.

Agricultural land is hard to assess in a short period of time, Jespersen said. In the past, the firm has coordinated with local conservation districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to have a separate assessment done, which would include looking at records to see which farms are working to adopt best practices.

“We usually do an agriculture and forestry survey to look at which areas have been recently harvested and to what degree,” she said. “The success of working with agricultural land owners is really having that middle person that works with farmers regularly that they trust.”

Jesperson also presented a draft of a schedule, if the board would select Ecological Instincts as a partner in the watershed project. Her firm would begin work for the grant application in the new year and establish a 25 percent local match in February. The application would be due to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in April.

“If the grant is to be awarded, they would make announcements in the summer,” Jespersen said. “Contracting would occur between October and December. The watershed plan development process would begin approximately a year from now.”

The Newport Select Board will return to in-person meetings in January. The next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 5.