Sebago Lake shimmers like a lopsided heart in Southern Maine, sustaining life in surrounding communities. All of the demands on the lake, however, are stressing it. Today, Sebago is among the most vulnerable watersheds in the Northeast, notes UMaine hydrologist Shaleen Jain, who is leading a project to help safeguard its future.
Sebago provides drinking water for 170,000 people in Greater Portland, recreation for thousands more, and seasonal hydropower. Balancing these demands while protecting water quality and vital habitat is challenging and sometimes contentious—especially when it comes to managing water levels in this 47-square-mile lake.
Jain and his colleagues are creating new tools to help those managing and using Sebago to see the big picture in a whole new way. The centerpiece is an interactive virtual watershed that will allow users to simulate how climate change and human activities ranging from developing land to manipulating water levels can affect the entire system. This new computer model will be used to investigate and understand the impact of multiple stressors on water supplies and quality.
“This tool will allow us to share new scientific insights and knowledge in a way that’s widely accessible,” says Jain, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and a cooperating assistant professor at the Climate Change Institute. “It also will allow groups and stakeholders who often have competing interests to look at the tradeoffs from a wide range of actions and find alternate approaches that would potentially lead to consensus.”
The Sebago project aspires to bring together collaborators from universities, local organizations, industry, and municipal, state, and federal agencies to help develop research questions and pool data and expertise. Researchers from UMaine and the University of Southern Maine are working with the Portland Water District, which monitors water quality in Sebago. Other collaborators include the National Weather Service, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Maine Regional Water Council, the Maine Lakes Environmental Association; and SAPPI (South African Pulp and Paper), which operates the Eel Weir dam on Sebago for hydropower.
In the first stage of the project, Jain and his colleagues are identifying key factors that influence the quality and quantity of water in Sebago, including land use and climate change. USM researchers are tracking natural and urban sources of phosphorus, which contributes to the degradation of water quality by triggering algae growth. Jain and other UMaine researchers are gathering and analyzing climate data to understand how changes in rainfall and snow melt can affect the tributaries that feed the watershed.
The researchers will share these and future findings with all stakeholders to help guide decisions affecting Sebago’s future. Although the lake’s water quality is good and the 361-square-mile watershed is reasonably intact, change is inevitable. Development will likely increase in the future: 96 percent of the land in the Sebago watershed is privately owned. And although Sebago’s water quality improved from the late 1970s to 1990, this trend has since reversed. “We don’t know if this pattern is due to natural variability or to real trends,” says team member Jean MacRae, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMaine. “The worrying part is that increasing urbanization in the watershed and increasing springtime precipitation would both be expected to produce worse water quality.”
To better understand the combinations of factors that affect water quality, Jain’s collaborators in UMaine’s New Media Program are using data he and others are collecting to design the virtual watershed. Led by Mike Scott, a new media lecturer and director of UMaine’s ASAP Media Services, the new media group will transform complex data from many sources into a computer model that’s engaging and easy to use.
Right now, Scott and colleagues including several students are refining a prototype of the virtual watershed. Ultimately, this computer model will put a rich trove of information at users’ fingertips for the very first time. It also will serve as a powerful educational tool for groups ranging from water utilities to lake associations to schools, according to Jain.
Jain says interdisciplinary innovation is essential to solving complicated problems like safeguarding healthy water supplies. He adds that SSI is the rare place where this kind of collaboration is possible. “SSI takes us beyond the usual piecemeal approaches, which lose salience in these complex contexts,” Jain says.
The insights Jain and his SSI colleagues are gathering will help sustain not only Sebago, but also other vital natural resources around the state—and the nation. “In some sense, Maine is a perfect natural laboratory,” Jain says. “I think the knowledge we can acquire here and transfer will go a long way in helping to transition to a sustainable future.”
Image Description: Shaleen