MCHENRY — — Something's killing the fish at Deep Creek Lake. The die-off appears to be weather-related, but some people wonder if it's an omen for the future of this mountain resort, as the "crown jewel" of rural western Maryland becomes increasingly crowded with vacation homes, boaters and tourist attractions.
Over the past couple of weeks, about 1,000 yellow perch, walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, catfish and bluegill have been found floating belly-up on the 3,900-acre manmade lake. Though the fish kill is small compared with die-offs around the Chesapeake Bay, it's the largest here since the state Department of the Environment began keeping track.
"This is too depressing," said Barbara Beelar, 68, as she piloted her outboard boat among dead perch scattered across the water near her lakefront home. A retired community organizer who began summering here in her childhood, she worries that the dead fish are "canaries in the coal mine," harbingers of an ecosystem increasingly stressed by all the people drawn to the lake to live, work and play.
Two years ago, thick mats of bright green algae formed on the southern end of the lake, prompting Beelar to form the Friends of Deep Creek Lake. She and other residents say they're concerned about polluted runoff from farms and vacation homes, about leaking septic tanks, sewage leaks and about shoreline erosion muddying the water and filling in the coves. The number of homes there has grown by 50 percent in the past 25 years and is projected to nearly double in the next two decades.
"I don't swim in my cove anymore," says Beelar. "I don't know if it's safe. The only people who swim there are the renters."
State biologists have indentified a common fish bacteria as the killer in the continuing die-off. But they say abnormally high water temperatures in this blistering summer and some as-yet unknown parasite infesting fish gills likely weakened them and made them vulnerable to infections.
Several large snapping turtles have also turned up dead in Green Glade Cove on the southern end of the lake, according to MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus. That's where the fish kill was first noticed in mid-July. Though there's no proof that the turtle deaths are linked to the fish kill, Stoltzfus said in an e-mail that the investigation is continuing.
The fish kill may well turn out to be a natural phenomenon, but Beelar notes that it began shortly after a sewage spill. A pumping station malfunction dumped 42,000 gallons of untreated waste into the lake. Authorities say there's no reason to think that the sewage spill caused the fish kill, and they stress that the bacteria they believe is killing the fish is no threat to people.
Not everyone's as upset as Beelar by the fish kill. Joyce Bishoff, interim president of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, says she's seen dead fish on the lake before.
"It just happens periodically," she says, adding that if it's from the heat, as officials are saying, there's no cause to "jump to any conclusions or become overly panicked about the situation.''
On Saturday, the Friends group has organized a public forum at the lake's movieplex to hear from scientists and government officials on the state of the lake and its 65-square-mile watershed.
Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin says he believes the 85-year-old lake, bought by the state in 2000, is "generally OK." But he agrees precautions need to be taken to ensure that development and tourism don't damage the very thing that's attracting them.
"I think we have a few warning signs," he said this week. "Nothing particularly major yet, but [there's] a great opportunity there for us to start to plan ahead to make sure we don't reach the situation where we have a greatly polluted lake and many, many people unhappy."
The lake's water quality is considered good, by some measures. But the state does warn people to limit their consumption of fish from Deep Creek Lake — and any other impoundment in Maryland — because they're likely to be contaminated with low levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, emitted by out-of-state power plants.
The lake is also classified as impaired by phosphorus, a plant nutrient which along with nitrogen can feed algae growth in the water. Nutrient levels in the lake are not extremely high, says Bruce D. Michael, chief of resource assessment for the Department of Natural Resources. But scientists are looking to see if the nutrients and sediment washing into the shallower coves are causing problems, he says.