John Mclaughlin Sebago Lake Twilight1400 Crop

Clean Water Champions (2022)

Image Credit: John McLaughlin

OSI & Sebago Clean Waters mark a milestone in innovative efforts to tap forests for clean water.

PORTLAND, MAINE (Feb. 16, 2022)—In a region where forests face myriad threats — including climate change, invasive species, development, overharvesting, and an aging cohort of woodlot owners — the recent protection of more than 12,000 acres in western Maine is very big news.

The Crooked River Headwaters project, several years in the making, highlights an unusual collaboration among conservation groups, a pair of landowners, and a water utility. It also strengthened the capacity of local land trusts to achieve similar deals in the future, while introducing a new and creative funding strategy for land conservation — setting the stage for more successes down the line.

Of the project’s 12,268 acres now permanently protected through a new conservation easement, 7,500 acres are located along the Crooked River, the largest tributary of Sebago Lake. Protection of the forested land that drains into the lake, the source of drinking water for one in six Maine residents and 11 communities including the city of Portland, is the objective of Sebago Clean Waters (SCW) — a coalition of which the Open Space Institute (OSI) is a founding member.

Monkman MEWFS D30048
The Sebago Watershed provides drinking water for 1 in 6 Maine residents.
Image Credit: Jerry Monkman for Sebago Clean Waters

“Conserving the Sebago Lake watershed is of particular importance for the lake’s water quality,” says OSI’s Jennifer Melville, vice president for conservation grants and SCW executive committee member. “This lake, one of roughly 50 public surface water supplies in the nation that require no filtration, is a model for forest and water protection. The land, trees, and forest are doing the work of filtering the water.”

The successful project moves SCW significantly closer to its goal of ensuring that 25 percent of the watershed, or 35,000 additional acres, is conserved by 2032. OSI has also helped local land trusts protect 3,400 acres toward the overall conservation goal.

In addition to the properties’ water quality benefits, its protection is critical in the battle against climate change. The lands’ natural features will support abundant and healthy wildlife even as the climate changes, and the project’s forests will store nearly 1.3 metric tons of carbon by 2050.

“The Crooked River Headwaters project is the culmination of years of work making the case for forest protection to funders and stakeholders, and building local capacity to increase the pace and scale of conservation,” said Karen Young, partnership director at Sebago Clean Waters. “It was an unprecedented victory for Sebago Lake watershed’s forests and its future. The work that laid the foundation for this success will pave the way for greater victories to come.”

Circling the partners

At the center of this conservation victory are a dynamic couple, Mary McFadden and Larry Stifler. Together, they have been buying forestland in the region since the 1970s with the goals of conserving it and making it accessible for public recreation. They carefully manage their land for wildlife and for people, including installing beautifully designed hiking, biking, and cross-country ski trails.

Mill Brook Long Mountain 1 Image Credit: Hadley Couraud for Sebago Clean Waters

Building on the federal funding, PWD issued its largest-ever grant to the project. But instead of paying cash outright for its $496,000 grant, the organization borrowed funds from Maine’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and issued bonds to repay the loan.

While most states use these funds to provide low-interest loans for water system upgrades and other “grey infrastructure,” in Maine, they can also be used to fund land protection. State revolving funds stand to receive significantly increased funding and more latitude in land protection under the recently passed Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

“Borrowing these funds was a way to institutionalize the idea that green infrastructure —forest conservation — is no different than buying a pipe,” said Paul Thomas Hunt, environmental services manager of PWD. “It’s just another component of being a water utility. Our responsibility is to invest wisely in infrastructure to ensure clean, safe water and forest conservation – green infrastructure does that.”

In addition to PWD’s contribution, other donors contributed $60,000 — all of which leveraged a significant land value donation from the landowners Stifler and McFadden.

“We had always wanted to conserve this land,” said Mary McFadden. “As we learned about how important it was for water quality, and the fact that Portland was one of so few cities not having to filter its water, we knew this was the right thing to do.”

Finally, on December 15, 2021, the property was protected, forever, for the state of Maine.

‘Never in my wildest dreams’

With its support of projects such as these 12,000 acres, PWD has become a leader among water utilities nationally in recognizing the importance of green infrastructure to ensure water quality.

For PWD’s Hunt, protecting the forest to keep the water clean seems almost like a no-brainer today. But it wasn’t always that way: he remembers the call he got 20 years ago from a land trust requesting funds for an easement on forestland, and how PWD’s own approach has evolved since then.

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