Concord — January 21, 2004 — Webster Lake in Franklin literally turned green in September when toxic bacteria invaded. While repaving a stretch of Route 3 in Belmont this year, the Department of Transportation polluted Lake Winnisquam for five months. E. coli ran into Northwood Lake unchecked for three years.
The state Department of Environmental Services found out about all of those water quality issues from members of the state’s Volunteer Lake Assessment Program – a program that might be gone soon.
Volunteer Coordinator Andrea LaMoureaux’s position is one of 16 slated to be cut Friday by DES, which said it was complying with the Legislature’s request to trim spending by $5 million. Tomorrow, Commissioner Mike Nolin is expected to ask the legislative committee that oversees budgetary matters for permission to make the cuts.
What is less clear, however, is why officials chose to eliminate a $31,000-a-year job that oversees 500 volunteers and keeps the state in compliance with federal regulations.
DES has just nine full-time aquatic biologists and more than 900 lakes and ponds to analyze. Volunteers who live on more than 150 lakes in New Hampshire take water samples and check water clarity where they live. When they report back to DES, biologists analyze the samples and compile annual reports for redistribution to lake associations and conservation commissions. The information is also sent to the federal Environmental Protection Agency in order to comply with the Clean Water Act.
The data is critical to long-term water quality; cleanups or management plans cannot be designed without it, according to environmental experts. And it’s cheap: Not including LaMoureaux’s salary, the state spends about $600 for an annual volunteer training seminar, newsletter and biologist visits to lake associations. Volunteers also pay about $20,000 for water sample analysis out of their own pockets.
Janet Cocchiaro, a volunteer who lives on White Oaks Pond in Holderness, said without LaMoureaux, the state may as well shut the program down. “She is the heart and soul of that program,” Cocchiaro said. “Part of a volunteer program is someone who can support them. Volunteers can provide hours of labor, but if you don’t have someone to coordinate their efforts, it’s done. She keeps us excited and focused. . . . If someone like Andrea is not in that position, I think our lakes are in danger.”
LaMoureaux, who has been the volunteer coordinator for three years, was not allowed to talk to reporters while at work. After hours, she said she could only speak as a citizen, adding that the letter she got said nothing about mandatory budget cuts. “It says it was due to reorganization of the department, specifically, elimination of certain positions,” she said.
In addition to the volunteer program, LaMoureaux investigates complaints and does extensive outreach and education in schools.
“This is a huge commitment. Certainly, the state doesn’t have the resources available to have people out on the 900-plus lakes and ponds,” said Joel Harrington, environmental policy director for the New Hampshire Lakes Association. “Without a program director, it loses momentum. The work wouldn’t really be done. They (state officials) use that data to help make educated decisions regarding the future of our lakes.”
The program is important, he added, because it’s an opportunity for the volunteers to express concern and be involved. “People who have been active in this program for years will no longer be part of the public learning process. People have got to see the results of their work,” he said.
Roger Larochelle is the executive director of the Squam Lakes Conservation Society and a board member of the Newfound Lake Association. He said the worst part of losing the program would be the timing. “With all of the issues out there – milfoil, development – this is a crucial time (to have the program).”
State environmental officials declined to say whether they have a plan to keep the volunteers on track if LaMoureaux is let go. “We became aware of it (the layoff) shortly before the world did last week,” said Paul Currier, administrator of the Watershed Bureau. “Right now, the director position is vacant.”