The following comments on China Lake's water quality have been adapted from a recent letter by David Landry.
When I first became president of the Lake Association I heard from a number of people about water levels in China Lake and the impact on water quality. I moved to the China area in 1988 and really knew nothing of the lake before that. I became a director of the lake association in 1990 and president in 1992 after the abrupt departure of then president Steve Blackwell. I had already had some experience with lake associations having worked with the Mousam Lake Association (a small lake in southern Maine) in the 1970’s and was cofounder and then a director of the McGrath Pond-Salmon Lake Association (Belgrade Lakes Area) in the late 1980’s. Prior to moving to China my past experience had been reasonable people would always make reasonable decisions and controversial issues could usually be worked though by examining the facts and reaching a consensus decision.
When I became involved in the China Lake Association I soon learned there were some very entrenched opinions and very little willingness to compromise. I decided to meet the major players and try and determine how to embark on the best path to improve water quality. Here was a summary of some of my initial encounters:
- "The water level is way too high and there is massive ongoing erosion around the lake at current water levels that is responsible for the poor water quality.” Al also felt the DEP was not to be trusted and had covered up errors in determining issue related to the China Lake Dam.
- "Water levels have less impact on water quality than you might think. At current water levels the DEP estimates that about 4% of the shoreline is actively eroding which is typical for a lake such as China Lake.”
- "A fall draw down is important in improving water quality. We need to keep lake levels as high as we can especially in the spring because in a usual year the lake will drop by about 1 ½ feet leaving little water for a fall drawdown.” This person felt a late summer/fall draw down was is an important tool to improve water quality.
I attempted to sort out the facts and decided to do my own shoreline survey since I thought this would help me evaluate who had the most accurate view of the lake. In 2000 I took 10 days of vacation and personally kayaked the entire 22 miles of shorefront inspecting the shore, measuring. and photographing the eroding sites. I summarized these results in a document, “Shoreline Survey of China Lake.” While there were some areas that were dramatically eroding, I calculated that between 3-4% of the China Lake shoreline was actively eroding. This corresponded very well to what the DEP had calculated. This caused me to place more value in what the DEP said than what others said about water levels and water quality.
I did feel the lake was being kept too high in the spring and I tried to persuade Roland to drop the lake some, he was not easy to convince. The idea of a fall drawdown made a lot of sense in regards to flushing out the algae and phosphorus whereas I did not feel that just lowering water levels would do anything to improve water quality. I do acknowledge that higher water levels have deprived shorefront residents of their beaches that were present in the pre 1970’s water levels. I would also point out that some that advocate much lower water levels have stated in public that my interest in higher water levels is self serving in that I live in a swampy area that would have a poor waterfront if water levels were dropped. This is incorrect. Where I have my swimming area and dock has been in use since the 1950’s and I would still have a nice area to swim at lower water levels. I invite you to stop by sometime and see for yourself.
As the whole water level issues became more heated in the time period 2000-2003 I though it would be worthwhile if the various groups met to see if a compromise or consensus on water levels could be reached. I thought we could drop the lake levels 1 foot in the spring and 1-2 more feet in the fall and still preserve the ability to do a fall drawdown. It seemed that the folks that wanted lower water levels wanted the levels much lower than that and Roland Tilton on the high side was interested in preserving a higher water level target. Despite a number of meeting there seemed to be no ability to reach a compromise.
My position and that of the CLA Board at the 2003 Board of Environmental Protection water level hearings was to maintain the then, and now, water levels since as a community we could not reach any compromise on water level. In 2003 the CLA board did not feel a consensus water level could be reached due to the “low water advocates” advocating water levels so low the CLA board members felt those levels would negatively impact the lake water quality and impair recreational use of the lake. I would note that I intentionally included people on the CLA board that had opposing views on water levels so that we would have a balanced view not a one sided view on the water level issue.
I have always felt a fall drawdown was helping the lake since we saw stable to slightly improving water quality in the period 1992-2003 when we were doing a drawdown. With the controversy surrounding water levels, the Town of Vassalboro, which owns the China Lake Dam, became tired of people constantly complaining to them about water levels and disrupting town meetings. In 2003 Vassalboro took control of dam management and took a much more passive role in controlling the dam. This consisted of setting the dam gates at the beginning of the summer and adjusting very little. No drawdown or flushing took place. So, from 2003 until the present no fall draw down was done. I felt a fall draw down was an important component of water quality improvement but was unsure of how important. Perhaps the decline in water quality we have seen in the last 3 years is related to the cessation of flushing.
In 2012 the Kennebec Water District contracted with Kleinschmidt Engineering to look at factors contributing to the water quality issues. (See chinalakeassociation.org web site for this report). One of the methods of improving water quality suggested in the report was a fall draw down. With this new information the CLA Board of Directors voted in May of 2013 to endorse a fall drawdown exceeding the current fall levels, going to about 3 feet below spillway from 1.5 feet below spillway. The Kleinschmidt Report estimated that 440 pounds more of phosphorus could be removed from the lake with a larger and better timed draw down. Remember in a good year our work around the lake keeps 20- 50 pounds of phosphorus out of the lake and can cost up to $3500/pound on larger projects.
In summary, I do believe a more aggressive fall draw down would benefit water quality. The CLA hopes to find some support for this within the community even though the initial request to the DEP by the Kennebec Water District was turned down. I remain optimistic that the community will eventually get things right in regards to water level, draw downs, and see some improvement in water quality. I think the idea of a fall drawdown that costs nothing and rids the lake of an additional 440 pounds of phosphorus yearly is too big of a carrot to pass up. The China Lake Association supports a fall draw down and will continue to advocate for solutions that are founded in scientific principles. I hope that members of the community will do their own homework in this regards to reach conclusions that are based in fact.