Nature in the balance

Supply: Experts warn that using Piney Run Lake for drinking water could do serious ecological damage.

September 10, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Whenever talk turns to tapping Piney Run Lake as a drinking water supply for Carroll County, Dot Sumey pulls out her photos from 1999, when the county had to draw down the manmade lake by about 5 feet to repair docks.

The pictures show a muddy and lifeless expanse of shoreline, devoid of plants and animals.

"There was an immediate effect on the ecology of the lake," said Sumey, whose home faces Dot's Cove, a section of the lake named in honor of her long residence there. "Cattails and rushes that provide oxygen to the water, the fresh water clams in the shallows - everything perished. Draw-downs affect everything."

Piney Run Lake could suffer some of the same effects again if it is tapped as a prime drinking water source, according to several experts and environmentalists interviewed by The Sun. At the very least, the experts said, the lake's ecology must be constantly monitored.

The 300-acre lake, surrounded by 500 acres of forests and wetlands in Sykesville, is at the center of a contentious debate over how best to obtain sorely needed drinking water for fast-growing South Carroll, the county's most populous area.

Carroll officials want to tap the lake to meet the county's water needs, but the state of Maryland has said it will not grant the county a construction permit to build a treatment plant at Piney Run, a project state officials call inconsistent with the county's master plan for water. Instead, the state has urged Carroll to negotiate with Baltimore City for more water from Liberty Reservoir, a city-owned lake along the Carroll and Baltimore County border. Those negotiations broke down months ago, when Carroll officials refused to endorse a longstanding watershed protection agreement.

Many South Carroll residents oppose the plant, which they contend will harm the recreational value of the lake. They also worry county officials are basing part of their justification for the project on a U.S. Geological Survey study of the watershed done in the 1960s before the lake was built.

"There are not many places anywhere as nice as Piney Run," said Mike Naused, who is chairman of a community group opposed to the plant. "To jeopardize it, even in the least, is foolish. This project affects our community and the well-being of our children."

Carroll officials insist they will do nothing to jeopardize the lake and said several previous draw-downs have done no harm.

"It is inconceivable that anybody in leadership would devastate that recreation," Carroll Commissioner Donald I. Dell told more than 350 residents at a hearing on the project last month. "We are only talking about developing a water supply for the future."

Conflicting needs

Communities across the state are facing similar problems as the needs of population come into conflict with nature, said Chris Bedford, former chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, who now heads the conservation group's water, food and farm committee. "People certainly should have water to drink, but they ought to also have mussels, clams and recreation."

No matter how the majority of the county commissioners couch their rationale for the plant, it will spur more development and it will have an impact on the ecology of the lake, Bedford said.

"The idea of having this water resource empower more development is a mistake," Bedford said. "It could destroy the natural diversity of this lake and they are essentially ignoring the limits of nature. To take this resource away from people in the name of development is to underestimate the importance of people coming into contact with nature."

A biologist and the director of fisheries with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources both see possible problems with tapping the lake.

Michael D. Naylor, a DNR biologist who periodically dives into the lake to gauge its health, said Piney Run has "the healthiest submerged vegetation possible, a plant population that releases seeds and expands naturally.

"These grasses will come back from seeds every year and will expand, if the area is left alone," Naylor said. "But, when you draw down the lake, everything left above ground is dead within hours. You could change the ecology of the lake and affect the recruitment of young fishes."

Grasses also cut down on erosion by softening the impact of waves hitting the shoreline, produce oxygen to stabilize sediment and encourage the growth of healthy organisms that deter algae.

Wild celery, a food source for migrating ducks, is also growing well in the lake. It grows low in the water and helps maintain clarity.

Plants in shallow water along the shore provide smaller fish with food and refuge from predators. From the lake's docks, visitors can usually spot yellow perch darting among the plants.

"If the reservoir level drops, all exposed plants die and will not come back that year," Naylor said. "If the area is kept dry for too long, the plants will be completely killed."

And fish populations will dwindle, said Bob Lunsford, DNR director of fisheries.

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