AUBURN, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- When hundreds of lake trout were found dead and dying, floating on the surface of Lake Auburn in the fall of 2012, officials in the cities of Lewiston and Auburn knew there was a serious problem with their water supply.
"I think Lake Auburn is probably the single most important natural resource in the region," stated David Jones, director of Lewiston's Public Works Department, which oversees the water and sewer operations in Maine's second largest city. "We were concerned obviously. We didn't know what was causing it."
"Having a fish kill was very unusual," explained John Storer, superintendent of the Auburn Water and Sewerage District. "There was no biological threat to consumers. It sounds bizarre that you could have fish die, but it was really a lack of oxygen."
After investigating the situation, they discovered an algae bloom much larger than normal in the lake. They determined that as the algae died and decomposed, it consumed all of the dissolved oxygen in the deepest sections of the lake, basically suffocating the lake trout that live in the depths of Lake Auburn.
With that mystery solved, they worked to figure out why the algae had thrived that year when it had never been a major issue before. They brought in experts from near and far to look into the matter, and while a final report from a consultant is still being finalized, they believe it wasn't one thing, but a combination of factors that caused the situation.
They hypothesize that a warmer than normal spring and summer, combined with a massive rain storm that sent runoff flowing into the lake, caused higher levels of phosphorus in Lake Auburn. the result were ideal conditions for algae to grow, and a fish kill that sent shock waves throughout the community.
Despite the impact on fish, the water was, and is, safe to drink. In fact, Storer says the water is so clean and pure that the water district has a waiver that does not require them to filter the water, just disinfect it, before it flows to thousands of homes and businesses in the area.
"Right now, the lake is not in distress, but we want to plan for the worst case provision should it come along," said Storer. "It is a critical step right now, regardless of what we were to try to put in for treatment, we have got to get the lake as healthy as possible."
"It is not just for drinking water, but if you speak to the fishery biologists, it is a great togue and salmon habitat and it is a great recreational resource for the community," he added.
Now, officials with both Lewiston and Auburn are waiting for the final report to be released before determining their course of action.
They have several options, including applying chemicals to combat algae blooms should they occur again, or treating the lake to remove the phosphorus from the water column. Other options include building a filtration plant, digging wells near the lake, adding bubblers to add oxygen to the lake's depths or doing nothing and hoping for the best.
Storer says waiting to see if the problem persists is not his preferred plan.
"The do nothing option could be worse than anything, so clearly we are trying to weight the pros and cons," he stated.
The consultant's report is due to be released in March, but already both towns are working on plans to help fund whatever option they choose.