LEWISTON — City management sent letters Thursday to Auburn water officials asking for a moratorium on all new development in the Lake Auburn watershed, a move that highlights a simmering divide between cities on the future of its shared drinking water source.
At a news conference Thursday, Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline said he’s worried recent efforts in Auburn to rezone land and update septic system design standards could further damage a source weak water.
The two cities have long discussed the threat of losing a filtration waiver, which allows the district to treat water without building an expensive filtration plant.
Sheline said Lewiston was particularly concerned about Auburn’s recent rezoning of 148 acres between the Auburn Mall area and the lake, which includes a large gravel pit. With more development, there is more stormwater runoff, he said, which typically brings more phosphorus and other algae-producing nutrients into the lake.
“These 148 acres are not only in the watershed, but in the Tier 1 Critical Zone which is near the two towns’ water intake,” he said. “This plot of land is upstream from the lake. We are deeply concerned about increased runoff as development and works occur on site.
Auburn officials, with data from a recent study, argued that the land is not part of the watershed and development of the site would be beneficial for stormwater mitigation.
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque was quick to respond to Lewiston’s press conference on Thursday, saying, “I wish Lewiston would stop being so jealous of Auburn and our success and actually focus on their problems. I trust Lewiston City Council will because the mayor is not.
Lewiston’s initial press notice said Sheline would be joined by the city council, but no councilor was present at the press conference. When asked, Sheline said the board unanimously agreed earlier this week to send the letters to Auburn officials.
In a statement after the press conference, Levesque said Auburn “will rely on science, facts and careful deliberation to support our decision-making” and will “make those decisions within the walls of our boardrooms, with input from the public and our elected officials, not in front of a microphone.
He also added, “We will remain focused on addressing Auburn’s challenges, such as accessible housing and alignment with regional and statewide priorities. We will do so while remaining deeply committed to protecting Auburn’s extraordinary natural resources, our quality of life and our greatest assets. We will continue to support a proactive policy and avoid repeating old and outdated policies of the past. And we will not let the future of our city be dictated by the mayor of another municipality.
In a letter to the Auburn Water District, Lewiston City Administrator Heather Hunter asked the district “to exercise its authority” to “institute a moratorium to prohibit all development, including housing additional and other associated developments in the watershed until a full and thorough study of the effects of the development in the watershed is completed and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has determined, after a review of the study, that the development will not adversely affect the conditions for maintaining a waiver of filtration requirements.
During her remarks on Thursday, Sheline said, “If we were to lose our filtration waiver, it would require building a filtration plant that would cost tens of millions of dollars and require millions more a year to operate. The best and cheapest option is to maintain water quality in Lake Auburn.
Hunter’s letter stated that cost estimates to “meet filtration requirements” initially amounted to more than $20 million, with between $1.5 and $2 million in annual operating costs.
Hunter said the recently rezoned area in Auburn is part of the lake’s “restricted absorption zone,” which the Auburn Water District bylaws designate as “the most critical area for protection because microbiological particles, chemicals and other contaminants are most likely to reach the intake from this location.
She said now that part of this area “has no land use restrictions to ensure that particles and other contaminants do not reach the lake water, which would jeopardize the water supply. drinking water for AWD customers and Lewiston residents”.
This story will be updated.
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