AUGUSTA, Maine — Most of Maine’s lakes are still covered with ice, but on Thursday, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill that aims to further protect water quality for 3,000 of the state’s largest lakes.

Among other things, the bill, LD 1744, authored by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, tightens regulations related to the application of lawn fertilizers and pesticides.

The measure also directs Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection to fill a staff vacancy meant to expand water quality protection education programs for waterfront property owners.

The measure provides $40,000 of funding for the state’s LakeSmart Protection program, which provides free educational programs for waterfront property owners. It also adds $20,000 to the state’s voluntary water monitoring program.

Both programs have been subject to recent state and federal budget cuts.

“For me it was really about having a conversation with DEP and getting them back on track as far as protecting Maine’s fresh water, having the appropriate staffing levels,” McCabe said.

The biggest hurdle for the bill now will likely be finding the money to fund it, McCabe said. The measure will move to the full House of Representatives later this month for a vote.

The bill also creates a 50-foot shoreline protection zone where the application of fertilizers is prohibited except to establish new turf or vegetation but only after the property owner has completed a soil test.

Amendments to the measure scaled back its scope by limiting it to only the state’s 3,000 Great Ponds — freshwater lakes that are larger than 10 acres. McCabe’s original bill had included all freshwater bodies, including streams, rivers and smaller ponds.

McCabe and other advocates for the bill said Maine’s lakes are vital to the state’s economy, and protecting them also protects jobs and the quality of life for much of the state’s population.

Peter Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s largest environmental organization, said the measure is the first significant effort aimed at lakes since 1997.

Didisheim said the measure strengthens the state’s “safety net for lakes.”

Many Maine towns depend on the property value of lakefront homes to generate revenue. Poor water quality drives down property values decline and tax revenue, Didisheim said.

The bill exempts lakeside farms, which are already required under state law to have soil nutrient plans.

When excessive phosphorus in fertilizer is allowed to seep into a lake, the result can be an algae bloom that robs the water of its available oxygen, damaging not only the clarity of the water but nearly all the life in a lake’s food chain, including fish.

Opponents to the bill said the measure would add a layer of unnecessary regulation for property owners with the fertilizer restrictions while also limiting what landscape professionals could do around lakes.

While the bill includes provisions that allow the use of fertilizer to establish vegetation where there is none, it has no provisions for improving the health of plants or turf at the water’s edge that are already established but may be struggling.

“I believe that statutes and regulations should be a little bit more general than specific,” said Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, who voted against the bill.

Still Campbell said he believed the legislation was valuable because it raised awareness while refocusing attention on the important issue of protecting lake water quality.

“There’s a lot more we would like to accomplish here, but I think this does a really good job at protecting lakes that are important, at the same time recognizing the partnerships that we have,” said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, a member of the committee, who worked to help redraft the bill and usher it through.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.