Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sick Water

It was a beautiful lake if you looked at it from a distance. There were fields sloping down to the water’s edge on the far shore and rolling hills visible beyond. Several nicely-built homes dotted other stretches of waterfront but the lake was dying.

This wasn’t what I expected to find. Exploring back roads on the other side of Lewiston last week, I’d picked up a sandwich and pulled over to a sandy beach on Sabattus Pond next to Route 126. It was a humid ninety degrees and one would expect the beach to be packed with cars, children and mothers on beach chairs; but it wasn’t. Mine was the only car and the only life in evidence was a couple of crows hopping along past the occasional soda can or discarded food wrapper. Further down was a boarded-up old bath house. This was mid-July, the height of Maine’s summer, and the beach looked like a moonscape. I got out, walked to the water’s edge, and looked down. The lake was almost opaque in a yellowish green haze, a kind of thinned-out pea soup. Depressing.

Sabattus Pond is a misnomer. It’s big enough to be a lake and that makes its impending death more tragic. I had questions - like when did the lake get sick, for instance, so I checked out my Maine Atlas and Gazetteer and found a boat landing along the western shore. Two guys were backing up a trailer to a floating bass boat and I asked one how long the water had been like this. He’d only been around about six years, he said, and the algae blooms occurred every year. He’d heard there was a chicken farm on a river flowing into the lake that had fouled it. “Killed it,” was more accurate I thought. Looking at the atlas again, I noticed one of the in-flowing rivers was aptly named - the Dead River. “The bass fishing is good,” he said, “but I wouldn’t dare eat any of them.”

Further along the Sawyer Road next to the eastern edge of Sabattus Pond, there were smaller roads leading to the shore. Exploring these, I noticed cottages with water frontage in fairly good repair, but on the inland side of the roads many were not maintained. Quite a few displayed overgrown lawns, rusty old “For Sale” signs, and generalized disrepair. Some appeared outright abandoned. It was depressing.

As I crossed the town line from Sabattus into Greene, the road moved away from the shore and properties were typical of rural Maine - some were kept up and others neglected. At the top of a hill was a beautiful farm with meticulously managed grounds. Next to it was a handsome stone building called the Sawyer Memorial, but its parking lot hadn’t been used for a while and I wondered why. There was grass growing up through cracks in the pavement. On the other side of the road I was surprised to see dozens of big old post-WWII army trucks parked in rows. I wondered what were they doing on a horse farm. A mile further on was a huge, fenced-in area containing several hundred old trucks painted in green camouflage. Researching online later, I learned they were M813, 5-ton, army vehicles manufactured in the 1980s. This compound looked deserted also. Tall grass growing up around them indicated the trucks hadn’t moved in a while. In my gloomy mood, the endless rows of metal and rubber seemed a huge waste.

Further along, I came to an old cemetery in the town of Wales. Gravestones dating back to the early 1800s had been pushed over and several were broken. Obelisks were toppled and though the grass had been mowed, no one had seen fit to repair the damage. The scene depressed me even further. Veterans of every conflict since the Civil War were buried there and I wondered who would wish to dishonor the graves of patriots. Was it an antiwar protest? Mindless vandalism by purposeless young men with nothing else to do? I couldn’t tell. Neither could I decide which would be worse.

A bit further on, the lake was back in view and I looked down across rolling hay fields to the sparkling water. Had I not stood on its shore, I wouldn’t have known it was dying. It was still beautiful from high up, reflecting the sun back to me, but its condition was critical. My circumnavigation showed not a single person swimming in it. Could the lake be flushed out and brought back to life? If so, what would it take? I thought of Kezar Lake in my own town. Its waters are still pure and I realized how important it is to keep them that way.

Sabattus Pond is dying. I strongly suspect, after my two-hour tour around it, that the economic and social health of the three communities on its shores is also suffering as a direct result.

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