Sick Lakes

Maryland's lakes are slowly dying, filling up with silt and vegetation. Dams are causing the problem, and scientists aren't sure how to solve it

June 24, 2007|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

To those who love it, little New Germany Lake is the perfect place to teach the next generation how to dog-paddle. Tucked in among spruce and hemlock, complete with diving ducks and loons, the 13 acres of open water seem like an expanse of untouched nature, and an opportunity for old-fashioned fun. Care for a dip of Hershey's ice cream at the snack stand? Fishing rodeo, anyone?

But lately residents of Garrett County, in Western Maryland, and even some vacationers have noticed unsettling changes in their beloved lake. The north end is now so shallow that canoes can't pass through. In July and August slimy weeds cling to bathers until they come up for air looking like lagoon monsters. At least one longtime swimmer has given up on the place entirely and joined a local pool instead.

And people are starting to wonder if they will outlive their lake.

The trouble is that, like all Maryland's lakes, state-owned New Germany is not a natural body of water. It is a dammed stream, and it is slowly filling in with sediment.

The same fate will befall other lakes in the state in the decades to come, because man-made lakes age far faster than natural ones. The Department of National Resources is currently studying New Germany as a test case to decide how to manage the problem in more than a dozen state-owned lakes, and to understand the future of Maryland's lakes in general.

Along with sediment analysis and watershed mapping, the study must also probe the complicated relationship between human beings and the lakes they create.

"This stream wants to become a stream again, with a little bit of marsh on the side," says Mike Gregory, manager of New Germany State Park, which includes the lake. "We are fighting nature."

At this stage in geologic history, at least, nature chose not to endow Maryland with lakes, which one freshwater scientist defined as ponds "big enough that you can't throw a rock across." There are no suitable volcanic craters or sunken fault lines here; the glaciers didn't get this far south. Lakes are rare in this part of the country in general, but even West Virginia has one tiny natural lake. Maryland, according to the DNR, is truly lakeless.

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, everyone from farmers to industrialists dammed rivers and streams in order to create reliable water supplies, harness hydroelectric power and control floods.

New Germany was constructed in the mid-1800s to provide ice blocks and fuel a grist mill for a small agrarian community. Its original architects built a dam of earth and tree debris not so very different from what a beaver might devise.

And while Western Maryland lacks geographic depressions capable of holding a lake's worth of water, the Great Depression was instrumental in New Germany's construction. In the early 1930s struggling farmers sold the land around the lake to the government, and the workers of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, apparently sensing that the state was in dire need of a vacation, set about reinventing it as a recreation spot. They strengthened the dam and deepened the lake to about 25 feet.

Roughly 70 years later, it is about 10 feet deep, locals say.

That amount of sedimentation might take 5,000 years to accumulate in a natural lake, estimates William Lewis, director of the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center for Limnology, the study of lakes and other inland freshwater ecosystems.

Artificial lakes die quickly for several reasons, but mostly because silt and nutrients that would normally flow downstream accumulate at the dam instead. The excess silt piles up, while the excess nutrients foster rampant plant growth; the plants die and pile up as well. As the lake becomes shallower, the process speeds up as more sunlight penetrates to the bottom, causing still more plant growth.

"You dam up a stream and you hold everything back," says Dr. William Pegg, who teaches limnology at Frostburg State and who has been consulting with a group of concerned residents on New Germany's woes. "It's not a stream, it's not a lake, it's something in between."

At present, New Germany appears to be turning into a wetlands, given how quickly plants are claiming its floor. For residents, sightings of the New Germany Monster have been replaced by all-too-serious accounts of SAVs, or sub-aquatic vegetation.

And although New Germany is among the smaller state-owned lakes, and is therefore "ahead of the curve" in terms of fill-in, its problems are "going to face every lake in Maryland at some point," Gregory says.

Already, there have been complaints at the popular -- and much larger -- Deep Creek Lake, where some parts have shallowed to the point that some homeowners can't get their boats in the water. Younger lakes, like Rocky Gap State Park's 243-acre Lake Habeeb, created some 40 years ago for recreational purposes, barely show the effects of fill-in and plant growth. But the troubles will intensify in time.

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