We Need Comprehensive Re-examination of Lost Lake Sewer . . by Bob Pine
To the Editor,
I am writing to discuss ideas on how to move forward on issues associated with the defeated Lost Lake Sewer Proposal. For many years I advocated for a sewer system for the Lost Lake area, but I voted against the Article at the last Town Meeting.
As I understood it, the Article was promoted on three grounds: the people in the Lost Lake area needed the sewer to solve existing septic problems; the sewer was needed to protect the Whitney Well; and the sewer was needed to solve environmental issues in Lost Lake, especially the proliferation of weeds. Unfortunately I did not think that information to support any of these important considerations was provided.
1. Neither the results of the survey of residents who would be served by the sewer nor the voices of most of the Lost Lake residents who spoke at Town Meeting indicated support for the sewer, at least as proposed.
2. The primary discussion about risk to the Whitney Well was about nitrates. The test results that were presented indicated that nitrate levels in the Whitney Well average 0.6 to 0.7 mg/l with a maximum of 1.2 mg/l. However, the maximum allowable nitrate level in drinking water is 10 mg/l, so nitrate does not appear to be a problem. People on septic systems do create more risk to a down-gradient well than people on a sewer, but I have not heard any arguments that justify a multi-million dollar expense.
3. I stated at the Town Meeting that the condition of Lost Lake is currently the town's most serious environmental challenge. Lost Lake is a town resource and the weed infestation must be addressed. Much of the discussion at Town Meeting was about potential reductions in nutrient levels in the lake that would result from a sewer and whether or not 20-year-old data was still relevant.
Unfortunately, these discussions missed the central issue. The primary types of weeds currently infesting Lost Lake, including cabomba and milfoil, do not grow as a function of nutrient levels in lake water. These weeds are rooted in the soils at the bottom of the lake and derive most of their nutrients from soil, not water. Although algae and many other weeds do depend on nutrient levels in water, the primary aquatic weeds in Lost Lake do not. Lost Lake is a shallow, flooded meadow and there is a thick layer of fertile muck on the bottom in which these weeds can proliferate independent of nutrient levels in the lake water. A sewer by itself is not going to help Lost Lake's primary weed problem.
In order to move forward, I think we need to separate the very real and serious issues in the Lost Lake area into their parts. We need to define the costs and benefits associated with each, look for comprehensive solutions, and decide if those investments are necessary and justified.
With respect to Whitney Well, we need to understand the actual threats, the reduction in threats if a sewer is constructed, and what portion of the cost of a sewer is reasonably allocated to the town to achieve that reduction.
With respect to failing septic systems in the Lost Lake area, we have been told anecdotal information about very expensive systems that have had to be installed.
However, $12.9 million (plus $2 to 3 million in hookup costs) to replace 359 existing septic systems, many of which are in working order, is a great deal of money per system no matter how the costs are allocated. I think we need to compare the cost of constructing the sewer with the financial and environmental costs of not constructing it. We also need to understand and quantify the potential effects of new development that may occur due to a sewer.
With respect to the environmental issues associated with Lost Lake itself, significant information is already available, including a recent study done for the Groton Lakes Association by Aquatic Control Technologies, Inc. While that study looked in general at long-term solutions such as dredging, its scope did not allow a full analysis of such options.
Based on the report, the use of herbicides is currently being proposed as a necessary short-term measure, but the report predicts the need for repeat treatments every few years indefinitely. In my opinion the use of chemicals, whether approved by EPA or not, should not be the long-term solution for Lost Lake.
I think that a two-prong approach is required to understand and address the Lost Lake issues. First, the town needs to form a committee, including town officials, representatives from the Groton Lakes Association, and other townspeople, to evaluate long-term solutions for Lost Lake itself. Groton Lakes Association has done a great deal of work on these issues, but this needs to become a townwide matter, not just a Lost Lake area issue.
A committee should also be formed to re-examine the sewer proposal. The proposal has grown dramatically in scale from the original concept of providing common septic systems for the small lakeside lots. It is not clear whether the financial burden of the current proposal is justified, either for the town or for the residents it would serve. If it does make sense to bring an article back to Town Meeting, there needs to be clear justification both for the project itself and for distribution of costs.
It is likely that long-term solutions to the Lost Lake weed problems will require multi-million dollar investments. We know that a sewer is a multi-million dollar investment and it is entirely possible that we should be thinking about extending town water in this area.
We need a comprehensive understanding of the entire picture prior to making any of those investments. Once we understand solutions, there needs to be a thorough process of explaining and vetting them before coming to another Town Meeting.