Lake level takes a dip to let repairs be made

Elkhorn: As the level of the Columbia lake drops, residents discover, its odors, castaway objects and mud are on the rise.

October 02, 2001|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Suddenly, Columbia's Lake Elkhorn has sprouted beaches, the dam's concrete spillway is dry and the smell is, well, downright fishy.

It would seem to be low tide at the beach, except the land-locked, man-made lake is not subject to the whims of the moon's gravitational pull.

Instead, the lake is undergoing a drawdown - or partial emptying - to allow $525,000 worth of repairs to be made to its dock, boat ramps and dam, said Charles "Chick" Rhodehamel, Columbia Association vice president and division director for open-space management. The beaches are mounds of silt that have collected over the years.

On Saturday, visitors were mostly unaware of the diminishing water, but they noticed a malodorous side effect. "It really stinks today. It's fishier," said Nancy McLaughlin, a regular lake visitor from Elkridge.

Lauri Butler of Laurel agreed. "It smells fresh, but not fresh in the positive way," she said. "I could tell something was different."

The water level of the 37-acre lake will be falling 4 feet during the next three weeks. The drawdown, which started last week, is controlled manually, with a valve in the dam. Through a 16-inch pipe, the lake's water is gradually escaping to the Little Patuxent River. The process is slow, to prevent soil erosion from the banks and the dam, said Dennis Mattey, assistant director of open space for the Columbia Association.

The drawdown will allow repair crews to reach areas that normally are submerged. Fixes to the dock area, including reinforcing the bulkhead and replacing rotting wood, will take about three months.

Repairs to the spillway, scheduled to begin in two to three weeks, will include filling voids beneath the spillway and patching cracks in the concrete. That should be completed in about five months, Mattey said.

For parts of the lake, particularly to the east and along the edges, water will disappear until repairs are finished. Already, a formerly submerged tire is visible from the wooden bridge at the lake's shallow end.

"There may be 20 feet of shoreline exposed," Rhodehamel said.

But with a maximum depth of 15 feet under normal conditions, the lake is hardly in danger of drying up. Restoring the lake to its normal state is a matter of closing the valve and getting a good rain. "That could be a matter of a week or two," he said.

Chris Greco, 10, went to the lake Saturday hoping to nab a fish with a pole fashioned from a sturdy stick, fishing line and rubber worm. Even though the lake smelled fishy, "there's not much fish because there's not much water," he said.

He and pal David Johnson, 11, mucked about in the mud searching for clams instead.

As the water recedes, an array of castaway items is revealed. Crews will walk "shoreline patrol" to remove exposed trash, but a full-scale dredging of the lake's murky bottom is not planned, Rhodehamel said, because of a $1 million-plus price tag - despite a $4 million Columbia Association budget surplus last year - and complexities such as where to dispose of the sludge.

Anyone considering donning boots and wading into the mud should think again, officials warned. Ducks can waddle on the slimy surface, but it is not fit for human feet.

"It's a little bit dangerous to go walking out there," said Walter Burlingham, chairman of the Columbia Waterfowl and Habitat Advisory Committee. He noted that the mud could be 3 feet deep in spots.

"The sediment material is pretty fine. It can be a lot like quicksand," he said.

The ducks don't seem to have trouble negotiating the mud, but visitors to the lake are concerned about them. "The poor birds. A lot of the ducks are not even in the water," noted Carlita Banks of Oakland Mills while walking her dog.

But Heidi Hanlon, wildlife biologist at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, said the drawdown should not harm the resident wildlife, including turtles, snakes and frogs.

Sue Darcy, who also works at the refuge, said, "At this time of year, amphibians and some reptiles are already starting to hibernate" - which means they are nestled under the mud, oblivious to water levels and dock repairs.

In fact, Hanlon said, the waterfowl should flourish, Hanlon said. Less water means a higher concentration of food in the remaining water, which is a feeding bonanza for birds such as egrets and herons.

"It will be easy pickings for the wading birds," Darcy said. "They'll flock in like they're going to McDonald's."

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