Jan. 18—A broad coalition of conservation groups and property owners is pushing for legislation to strengthen Maine's protections against invasive freshwater plants and animals before it's too late.
Thus far, Maine's thousands of pristine lakes and ponds have largely avoided widespread infestations that degrade water quality, choke out native species and obstruct boats and swimmers.
But the state's luck could run out without more protections, said Colin Holme, executive director of the Lakes Environmental Association, a conservation nonprofit in Bridgton. Once an infestation sets in, it is extremely expensive, and sometimes impossible, to remove.
"Our lakes are beautiful; the only way they are going to stay that way is to keep invasives out," Holme said.
Risks increase with a rising number of boaters and growing infestations in lakes and ponds, he added. Meanwhile, lawmakers and state agencies have been reluctant to add new regulations pushed by lakes associations and environmental groups.
"The issue is (that) there is a disconnect between what the public wants for protection from invasive aquatics, what is really needed and what (the Maine) Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife wants to take on for new regulations," Holme said.
BILL BORN OF FRUSTRATION
A bill before lawmakers this session would try to bridge that gap by establishing a new state-level committee that would report regularly to the Legislature and recommend new laws and regulations to combat and prevent freshwater invasives.
The committee could consider speeding up treatment of infested lakes, limiting watercraft in infested areas, mandating boat inspections on infested waters and requiring permits for events held on them.
There are about 6,500 lakes and ponds in Maine. Roughly 30 infestations have been detected in the state's inland waters.
The bill was born out of frustration with previous efforts to toughen state rules, Holme said. Last year, lawmakers on the Inland Fish and Wildlife Committee killed a "clean, drain, dry" bill that would have required boaters to make sure their vessels were free of invasive species before launching in state waters.
The proposal attracted ample public support, but the IFW questioned its enforceability.
Instead of bringing forward new bills that could meet the same fate, supporters think a standing committee can produce consensus bills that would be acceptable to everyone involved.
Back in 2001, Maine passed the "milfoil bill," named after a common variety of pernicious, invasive plants. That bill, which established prevention and treatment programs, was trailblazing at the time, but Maine has fallen behind since, Holme said.
Clean, drain, dry bills are common in states facing serious infestations, he said. Other states even have boat decontamination sites on their borders or prohibit launching a boat without an inspector present.
"There are so many reasons to take this seriously right now and jump on it and really make sure the vectors that move these plants around are addressed, more than ever," Holme said. "We need to be more proactive, and unfortunately, that is going to require more than education."
PROPOSAL GRABS ATTENTION
L.D. 1826, innocuously named "An act to create a subcommittee of the interagency task force on invasive aquatic plants and nuisance species to recommend ways to reduce the threat of further infestations," attracted a flood of public comment at a hearing last week.
More than 100 people and organizations submitted written testimony on the bill, nearly all in favor.
IFW and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection both submitted testimony that was neither for nor against the bill. Both agencies said an informal working group — with a similar composition to the proposed committee — is already working on invasive species issues, including a clean, drain, dry proposal.
"While we can't prevent all infestations, we need to constantly look for improvement in our spread prevention and infestation management," said Brian Kavanah, director of the Bureau of Water Quality, in testimony.
The bill "intends to do just that but may not be needed given ongoing work by state agencies, lake associations and other organizations devoted to protecting our inland waters."
Maine has avoided widespread infestations because of the work already being done by the state, nonprofits and volunteers backed by an interagency task force, said Mark Latti, communications director for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
"If you look over the years at what has been done, educational campaigns, enforcement, eradication, there has been a lot done by this committee," Latti said. "More is coming, certainly it is not time to let our guard down. But a lot of great work has been done and continues to be done."
The aquatic invasive task force, established more than 20 years ago, has become a clearinghouse for individual lakes' prevention and management programs, said Susan Gallo, executive director of the nonprofit environmental protection group Maine Lakes. The task force doesn't propose policy or laws to address the issue, she added.
A working group of the task force was formed to address future invasive measures, but it has no mandate or guarantee it will be allowed to keep working, Gallo said.
The proposed committee, on the other hand, would be legally bound to produce biannual reports to the Maine Legislature.
"I've been on so many failed working groups," Gallo said. "Everyone is excited, but if the administration changes, if you lose steam, it never sees the light of day."
A formal committee, she said, "guarantees as much as anything that the work will keep going and, really importantly, it will come in front of the Legislature."
IS TIME RUNNING OUT?
Maine shouldn't wait for things to get worse before making stricter laws, said Toni Pied, invasive species manager for Friends of the Cobbossee Watershed in Winthrop.
Cobbosseecontee Lake, south of Augusta, was free of invasive plants until four years ago when Eurasian watermilfoil, an especially virulent species, was detected.
Now her group, with funding from the state and help from volunteers and the local lake association, is trying to eradicate five patches of milfoil in the lake. It also combats lake infestations of variable leaf watermilfoil and European frogbit, another invasive plant.
Eradication efforts, which include using herbicides and manually pulling plants, cost $50,000 a year, Pied estimated.
Pied doesn't want other lakes to suffer through the same battle.
"The perception that people have of invasives in lakes is that if their lake doesn't have it, it is not a problem," Pied said.
That false sense of security can be punctured by just one visiting boat bringing in a foreign species, she added. Many states that have imposed stricter rules only did so after invasives were already out of control, Pied said, adding that Maine shouldn't make the same mistake.
"We have a limited window of opportunity here," she said. "We have a very few number of infested lakes statewide, but that is not necessarily going to be the case."