Development, phosphorus threaten Highland Lake

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FALMOUTH — Increased development around Highland Lake is threatening the water quality of this natural resource that borders Falmouth, Windham and Westbrook.

Agreeing that the lake is just too valuable to let deteriorate any further, the towns of Falmouth and Windham have created the joint Highland Lake Leadership Team.

The team is charged with, among other things, updating both the watershed management and phosphorus control plans and making recommendations for ordinance changes designed to better protect the lake.

Highland Lake covers 623 acres and the watershed that feeds into the lake is 8.5 square miles in size, according to the Highland Lake Association.

Dennis Brown, who lives on the Falmouth side of the lake, is heading up the leadership team.

“Putting appropriate ordinances in place to protect the lake water quality and creating an awareness of how individual actions impact the lake will (go) a long way toward turning the current trend around,” Brown said recently.

However, he also said there are a number of hurdles to overcome, including “the very different stakeholders around the lake. Each group has its own interests and finding ways to protect the lake with the least financial impact to everyone is going to be a challenge.”

That’s why the leadership team and the Highland Lake Association will be “looking at grants to fund a number of specific efforts,” Brown said.

He said the various stakeholders include those who live on the lake full-time, those who just summer there, those who live within the watershed and “property owners and developers who want to optimize the value of their land.”

He said while Highland Lake is within easy distance of Portland, “it can seem so far away (while) paddling, sailing or just floating” on its waters on a summer day.

Brown said a concerted effort was made in the late 1990s and early 2000s to remove the lake from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s list of impaired lakes.

But now development pressure and a general lack of understanding about best land management practices have “overcome the gains that had been achieved” and the “lake has degraded to the point that it may go back on the impaired list.”

This is what the Highland Lake Leadership Team is working to avoid, Brown said.

He said one of the first steps, a watershed survey set to be completed in late spring, would be a big help in “beginning to address problem areas.”

But Brown also said outreach and education efforts for homeowners and developers would be key to helping them understand the issues threatening the lake’s overall health.

To that end the leadership team is planning a public forum on March 7 to help inform people about “what is happening within the watershed and what can be done to improve things,” Brown said.

The Highland Lake Leadership Team includes three representatives each from Falmouth and Windham, as well as five members of the Highland Lake Association.

In addition to its other duties, Brown said the leadership team is also tasked with “monitoring, assisting and coordinating scientific efforts to further understand watershed and water quality issues affecting Highland Lake.”

The leadership team and its various subcommittees have just begun meeting, Brown said, but so far everyone has “shown a great deal of enthusiasm and that is very encouraging.”

The request to create the leadership team came after algae blooms began affecting water clarity and quality over the past three summers, according to Brown.

He said the lake “is being impacted by what’s happening in the watershed, and there are more bad things happening than good. The lake is no longer oxygenated to the bottom of its 67-foot depth and algae blooms (have) begun to appear” as a result.

“The phosphorus levels are now above where they were and (this) trend needs to be reversed. At the end of the day, reducing the phosphorus export to the lake remains the most important issue that we will have to address,” Brown said.

He said creation of the Highland Lake Leadership Team is important because it means “we get a wider voice than the (lake association) can get on its own.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Algae blooms on Highland Lake are impacting on its water quality and the overall health of this local resource.

Kayaking on Highland Lake, which borders Falmouth, Windham and Westbrook, could be threatened by poor water quality.

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