Jan. 25—LEWISTON — Officials in Lewiston are speaking out against Auburn's plans in the Lake Auburn watershed, saying they have not been thoroughly reviewed by state regulators and will be costly to ratepayers and the lake.
The three-page statement from Lewiston comes a few weeks after Auburn officials said the city would be forging ahead with changes to the watershed as mediation between the two sides failed.
Lewiston continues to argue that Auburn's recent actions and proposals will threaten the federal waiver shared by both cities, which allows them to deliver drinking water without the need for a costly filtration facility.
In the statement, Lewiston "warns that Auburn's impetuous actions" will jeopardize water quality by "prioritizing short-term development around Lake Auburn over the long-term benefits of clean drinking water."
The two sticking points remain Auburn's proposals to change the watershed boundary — specifically in the Gracelawn Road area — and update its septic design standard within the watershed. Auburn said its proposals are based on science, backed up by recent studies, but Lewiston argues there is much more nuance in the reports than Auburn will admit.
The city of Lewiston filed a lawsuit against the Auburn Water District in May 2022, declaring that the district does not have the authority to change the watershed boundary or its definitions previously agreed upon by both cities.
In Lewiston's statement, Kevin Gagne, the deputy Public Works director who has overseen its water division for years, said Auburn is "gerrymandering the lake's watershed boundary lines and playing a shell game with septic design changes, as these two ordinances suggest, do not protect Lake Auburn."
"This is another attempt proclaiming protection of the lake while actually pushing a hidden agenda," he said.
The statement Wednesday said despite the federal waiver and the lawsuit, "Auburn continues to aggressively pursue an ill-advised agenda that is contrary to both the law and protection of water quality, by orchestrating board placements and hindering collaboration."
Lewiston said instead of passing bylaws to further protect water quality, the Auburn Water District has "affirmatively acquiesced to the (Auburn) City Council's actions."
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque responded to Lewiston's statement Wednesday.
"Since it's obvious that the science is not on Lewiston's side and they won't prevail in a court of law, they are making a last-ditch attempt to sway the court of public opinion," he said. "It's unfortunate that we have moved from reviewing scientific data to making baseless accusations and hurling insults and impugning the integrity and motive of fellow municipal officials."
The watershed boundary changes, proposed along land and a gravel pit owned by John Gendron, have been at the center of a recent report that both cities said backs up their decisions. The report largely agreed with Auburn's proposed watershed boundary, but also cautioned the city from "discounting" the Gracelawn Road area from the watershed entirely, stating that the potential impacts to the lake will depend on how the area, including the gravel pit, is "restored and developed."
Lewiston's statement this week said state regulators have walked the site with the landowner and staff from both cities and the Auburn Water District, but have not yet reported the results of their review. Lewiston said it took issue with Auburn pressing forward with changes to the boundary without waiting to hear from the state.
The basis for Lewiston's strong pushback against Auburn's proposals is the threat of higher water costs.
According to its statement, a new water treatment facility, which would be required if the district lost its federal waiver, could cost as much as $60 million, with higher annual operating costs of between $1.5 million and $2 million, all paid for by water ratepayers in both cities.
Lewiston argues that increases to ratepayers would result in a 100% increase in hospital water bills, a 111% increase for hotels, as well as costs doubling for most ratepayers.
Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline said Wednesday that Auburn's proposals are "gambling with the future of our water supply."
"Building a costly, unnecessary filtration plant with high ongoing maintenance costs isn't a plan for economic development," he said. "Utilities are already expensive enough for our businesses and seniors on fixed incomes. We don't need a water bill that is more than double what we pay now."
Last week, the Auburn City Council moved forward with two more proposals related to the watershed, asking the Planning Board for an opinion on prohibiting any new septic systems being installed within 300 feet of the lake, as well as establishing a "conservation and natural resource protection" zone in the areas of the Lake Auburn watershed currently located in the agricultural zone.
Lewiston said those proposals "may provide some limits," but it "remains clear that (Auburn) intends to change the septic ordinance to allow new septic systems in many new areas and allow more development."
Auburn disagreed, saying its changes should be used as a model for upper watershed towns to limit stormwater runoff into the lake.
Recently, the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission hired consultant CEI to conduct a peer review of a previous study by FB Environmental, which has been used as the basis for much of Auburn's proposed changes.
While CEI said it largely agrees with FB Environmental's overall findings, it questioned a few major elements, including the septic updates. It said there may be other ways to achieve the city's stated goals of better-working septic systems without creating new buildable areas.
The current ordinance limits where new systems can be placed based on available soils, but the updated design would allow systems to use alternative soils. Officials in Auburn have also said the design is more modern and would reduce harmful nutrients from entering the lake. However, since it would also allow for new buildable lots, Auburn has proposed moving to larger minimum lot sizes, as well as the 300-foot buffer.
Lewiston officials said they're also concerned with potential impacts from L.D. 2003, state legislation passed last year to increase new housing opportunities. But, while Lewiston said Auburn is "bulldozing" forward without reviewing its potential impact, Levesque said the city's moves will "firm up protections" around the lake. He said the city has already passed low-impact development standards that require new buildings to submit plans to control runoff, and that moving agricultural land into conservation will eliminate the "LD 2003 variable."
Lewiston's statement honed in on sections of the FB Environmental study, including a finding that even with low-impact development standards in place, "more development cannot be allowed in the Auburn portion of the watershed."
Auburn city staff has argued that all the proposed changes, taken together, will create "easier to understand watershed regulations that reduce development potential and hold a higher science-based standard for phosphorus control and wastewater disposal."
The Auburn council is slated to take up additional proposals during its February meeting.