Dredging up a draining issue

Environment: Preventing two Howard lakes from becoming swampy messes could come at high cost for the Columbia Association.

October 07, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Columbia's three lakes are among the planned community's most attractive amenities, popular for fishing, boating or just strolling around.

But two of them are at risk of becoming smelly swamps.

Sediment is overwhelming Lake Elkhorn in Owen Brown village and Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia's Town Center, requiring the bodies of water to be dredged at a cost to the Columbia Association of more than $3 million. The projects may be proposed for the homeowners association's 2005 budget, which the association's board will begin discussing this month.

If the lakes are never dredged, they will take their natural course and fill up with sediment, said Chick Rhodehamel, the association's vice president for open-space management.

"With man-made lakes, it's a more accelerated process," Rhodehamel said. "All lakes do that in time, they all fill in and go to a marsh, to a bog."

But whether the lakes will be dredged anytime soon is at issue. The association has been studying and preparing the lakes for the project. However, removal of the sediment hasn't happened because of the cost.

"It's a matter of allocating resources, and that's really what it comes down to," Rhodehamel said. "I don't know that anybody disagrees that it should be done. It's just a part of an expenditure."

Lake Elkhorn, built in Columbia's Owen Brown village in 1974, is now considered an eyesore by some residents, said Randy Lappert, president of the Swan Point at Lake Elkhorn condominium association. The lake is full of algae and sediment.

"Along the sides of the lake, at times it just doesn't look clean, it just doesn't smell clean," he said. "I'm not an ecological expert of what lakes should look like, but it needs some grooming. That's the best way to describe what the lake needs."

The association has never dredged the 37-acre lake, a project that Rhodehamel said preliminary estimates show could cost about $1.5 million. But some improvements have been made, including repairing the dock, boat ramps and dam in 2001.

Lappert said residents are grateful for those projects, but after 30 years it's time for the lake to be dredged. He pointed to the additional $2 million that the association is expected to receive from higher home assessments in east Columbia as a possible source of funds.

A number of residents have asked the board to lower the assessment rate or refund some of the money, but Lappert said he thinks the Columbia Association should keep the money and put it toward projects such as dredging the lake. Last month, association staff told the board that if the assessment rate is not changed, the association could complete some important capital projects, such as dredging the two lakes in 2005 and 2006.

"I think [Lake Elkhorn] sets the tone for property values," said Lappert, who has lived in the community for 22 years. "The lake does surround a lot of homes, it does affect a lot of properties."

Last year the Columbia Association's staff proposed spending $2 million on dredging Lake Kittamaqundi and returning the Little Patuxent River to its original configuration. But the board balked, even though the association is on track to end fiscal 2004 with a $5.3 million surplus.

Some board members said that the state or county should be partially financially responsible because of the sediment carried into the lake from the Little Patuxent River. They wanted to pursue the project only if those agencies would pay for half.

After the association's staff did not receive any positive feedback about the project, it was not included in the 2004 budget. The 27-acre lake was last dredged in 1982.

Rhodehamel said Lake Kittamaqundi, which opened in 1967, is the first on the list to be dredged because of the sediment from the Little Patuxent River.

"You can pretend the river is not there and deal with the lake and then be surprised two years later - that would be silly," he said. "That's sort of the priority pusher."

In the meantime, the association is spending its resources preparing the lakes to be dredged, focusing on studies and securing the necessary permits. Staff is also still trying to get financial help from the state or county to dredge both lakes.

The association has spent about $448,000 on studies and preparation for both lakes, Rhodehamel said. Most of that money, $358,000, went to repairing Lake Elkhorn's dam.

About $11,000 has gone toward creating a structure to draw down Lake Kittamaqundi to prepare for dredging, Rhodehamel said. But the association has not started the structure because there is no clear schedule for dredging the lake. Dredging and draining the lake should be done at the same time so the ecosystem is only disturbed once, he said.

Columbia's other lake, Wilde Lake, was built in 1966 and was dredged and had its dam repaired in the early 1990s for about $1.4 million.

Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, the board representative from Owen Brown, said she would request that the Lake Elkhorn dredging project be placed in the 2005 budget. But she said she is worried that the delay for Lake Kittamaqundi's dredging will cause Lake Elkhorn to be pushed back on the schedule.

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