November 21, 2017

Surface Water Protection and its effect on the watershed community of Highland Lake by Rosie Hartzler, Highland Lake Association President

At the Tuesday, November 14 meeting of the Windham Town Council, an agenda item focused on proposed revisions to the Surface Water Protection Ordinances, a list generated as a result of the Moratorium Ordinance on development within the Windham Highland Lake Watershed. Moratorium on all development enacted on September 5, 2017 jolted the watershed community, and in fact caught a lot of people by surprise. What exactly led to implementing what seemed to some as a drastic measure?
Most of you have heard about the recurring Pico cyanobacteria bloom (also referred to as picoplankton bloom) in Highland Lake (HL.)  This summer, the lake experienced a fourth occurrence of this troubling phenomenon – a phenomenon that for about 4 weeks from mid- July through mid-August reduced water clarity to less than 2 meters.  

Even though repeated testing confirmed that the outbreak was not toxic – this was little comfort to lake residents.  Like one resident said, “When I stand in knee deep water, I can’t see my feet.”   
The reality is that HL has been a lake under stress for a very long time. Since 1998, the lake has been on Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) watch list and determined to be a “lake most at risk from over development”.  

Cyanobacteria is in every lake, and even in the oceans. But the way they are showing up as picoplankton blooms in freshwater lakes like HL, is extraordinary. Lakes where the blooms are exhibiting themselves, are also lakes that test for high nutrient loads – specifically the nutrients of phosphorus and nitrogen.  

It is well established that the total phosphorus in Highland Lake is caused by non-point source pollution (runoff) from the water shed. This runoff is directly related to over development.  

The most recent count enumerates 1,000 residences in the watershed and the negative impact of development on the lake is not just from shoreline properties. To live in the Highland Lake watershed means that residents are a part of this over development phenomenon. A watershed is basically a basin and, at some point, everything including excess phosphorus eventually ends up in the lake.  

Average total phosphorus readings have been gradually increasing in HL.  

Jeff Dennis of Maine DEP states, “There has been a progression of total phosphorus concentrations from around 8 ppb (parts per billion) in the mid-1970s to 10 ppb or more in recent years. The increasing eutrophication culminated in what is assumed to be picoplankton blooms from 2014 – 2017.” (“Highland Lake Summary”, Jeff Dennis and Linda Bacon, DEP, September 2017)
This summary is available at

Because this is a lake under stress from over development, it is imperative for change. The current ordinances are not sufficient to protect this lake.    

The more sobering truth is that the economy of Windham and Falmouth could be impacted by the crisis at HL. For example, the tax base is tied to the residences in the watershed. We are all in this together – not only those who live on Highland Lake, but others who live in watershed areas who can learn from what is occurring in HL. 

Together, we have the power to solve this issue. 

Here at HL, the Highland Lake Association (HLA) is a dedicated and energized group of volunteers committed to preserving and protecting this valuable resource. The HLA is open for new members and folks interested in helping with the effort to protect the lake.  

The HLA has organized a Science Roundtable for Friday, December 1. This will be a closed meeting of scientists, academics and water quality experts to focus on what is causing the Pico cyanobacteria blooms in the lake and what can we do about it.   

Following this roundtable, a public forum will be held where residents have the opportunity to learn more about cultivating an effective community response to this troubling phenomenon. 

The HLA has become an active participant with Windham and Falmouth in reviewing land use ordinances, to ensure that these ordinances are effectively protecting the lake. Given the status of the lake, there is considerable pressure to get it right.  

To learn more about how you can become involved in the process to review the Surface Water Protection Ordinances, contact the HLA or your town councilor.  

Reach out to the HLA to let your ideas be known for creating a climate where the protection of Highland Lake and the other valuable natural resources are balanced with economic progress.  For more information visit the HLA at

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