About Maine Lakes

Adapted from Maine Lakes by the Water Resources Program, University of Maine

Bear Pond is one of 5,785 lakes in Maine (if one counts every body of permanent standing water down to one acre in size). These lakes exceed in number and total area the lakes of all the other New England States combined. A more meaningful number is that of “great ponds” the 2,600 or so lakes that are more than 10 acres in size. The state of Maine government owns the waters and bottoms of these lakes.

Many Maine lakes are large and 267 lakes are more than one square mile in size.. Sebago Lake covers 45 square miles and Moosehead Lake 117 square miles. About 90% of Maine lakes are “drainage” lakes. That is, much of the water entering and leaving the lakes is surface water. About 5% of Maine lakes are “seepage” lakes, in which most water entering and leaving the lake is groundwater. Lakes of other types include those that are primarily human-made. Many natural lakes over 500 acreas have been enlarged by dams. Many dams were constructed long ago to facilitate river log drives. Others, built more recently, serve hydropower needs.

The lakes are important habitats for “north-country” fish and wildlife (such as loons, eagles, ducks, cormorants, and moose. A century ago someone suggested that Maine be called The Lake State. The suggestion did not take root–probably because the seacoast could hardly be ignored in any characterization of Maine. Yet, Maine is a Lake State. Its thousands of lakes are as valuable a resource to Maine as are the State’s seacoast and forest. The number and quality of our lakes are matched by only two or three other states. Many are lightly developed and used, with extensive areas of natural shoreline. And most have little pollution from human developments and activity

The lakes were formed some 12,000 years ago when the continental ice sheets of the last ice age retreated northward and finally melted away. Those ice sheets had gouged out basins in the land and blocked ancient drainage ways with deposits of glacial materials.

Lakes have short lives compared to other landscape features (such as mountains). The aging process is usually a gradual process of filling up with soil eroded from surrounding lands, silting of lake bottoms, and decomposed plant materials. The fate of most lakes, especially the shallower lakes, is to become murky and eventually fill up with sediments and become wetlands and streams. (Maine lakes, for example, have typically accumulated 15 to 45 feet of sediments since deglaciation.) The pace of this process can be greatly accelerated by human intervention and land development in the watershed. As a lake ages, it becomes more prone to algae blooms triggered by phosphorus pollution from rainwater runoff.

A long-term gradual decline is taking place in Maine’s lakes. The decline stems from development in lake watersheds and ongoing expansion in lake recreation. Moreover, some lakes are in a crisis. We need to pay attention to what is happening in and on our lakes.

Lakeshore Cottages and Homes

There were not many cottages on any Maine lakes until the arrival of the “automobile era” early in this century. Even then, in the early 1900’s, people in Maine did not have the leisure or the money to invest in cottages, and out-of-state people did not have the highway access they now have. This changed after World War II. Thousands of cottages were built on Maine lakes from the late 1940’s up through the 1960’s.

Although many of these lakes were in organized towns and cities, the developments were often unplanned and uncontrolled. Cottages were often put on small-size lots often on, or very close, to the shoreline. Natural vegetation was often completely removed. Access roads were inadequate (for fire protection, for example). And sewage systems were often substandard.

By the 1960’s it was clear that Maine’s lakes were seriously threatened by uncontrolled development. Political leaders and state agencies responded to this crisis by adopting a series of laws and regulations in the 1970’s and 1980’s to protect Maine’s lakes and other natural resources. This improved the quality of lake shore cottage developments, and is one of the great environmental success stories of the last quarter-century comparable to the cleanup of the nation’s rivers. We are greatly in debt to those responsible for the protective and remedial measures taken during that period. However, long-term expansion of cottage development is a significant threat to the special unspoiled character of many Maine lakes including Environmental Threats to Bear Pond.