From Beelar's boat as it cruises the lake, brown plumes stretch out in the water from bare-dirt shoreline. Boat wakes chew at the shore, but their damage is exacerbated by the lake's fluctuating water level. The hydroelectric dam near the northern end releases water to generate power, but it's also required to make regular releases in summer for whitewater rafters using the Youghiogheny River, and to keep the river water cool enough to sustain fish there. The water level can vary by 4 feet under the state permit.
Water quality would likely be improved if farmers raising livestock around the southern end of the lake fenced their animals away from the streams, says Beelar. But she thinks the state also should bar lakefront homeowners from mowing the grass right down to the water's edge.
Carolyn Mathews, who manages the lake and the shoreline for the Department of Natural Resources, says she preaches letting the grass and trees grow near the shore to absorb runoff whenever she can, but the state's policy has been to let property owners keep doing whatever they've been doing for years.
"We haven't cracked that nut yet," she says.
Growth is a concern of almost everyone — with business owners wanting to see more and residents hoping to limit it, if not roll it back.
The year-round lake area population grew 21 percent in the 1990s and stood at 3,845 when the 2000 Census was taken. But summer and major tourist events can draw many more.
All those people come with money to spend. One in five jobs in the county is in lake-area businesses, rental homes and other attractions, the chamber president estimates. Combined, they pump $45 million a year into the local economy, she says.
But on summer holidays and weekends, the crush of visitors can make the lake less enjoyable and more hazardous. A state study several years ago recommended no more than 450 boats and personal water craft be allowed there. The number on summer weekends this year has approached that threshold at least a couple of times and exceeded it on the Fourth of July, says Mathews. The number of boating accidents reported to Natural Resources police doubled from 2008 to 2009, she notes.
Even so, the state has yet to try to rein in the number of boats plying the lake.
With so many people looking to spend time at the lake, resort development has outpaced population growth, with a 50 percent growth in homes there since 1990. There are an estimated 5,700 residences around the lake, and county planners project that 4,000 more will be built in the next 20 years.
The growth has proved a challenge for Garrett County, which for years lacked any zoning but has since instituted some controls on lake area development.
"We have a lot of developable area up there yet," says Bishoff, the chamber president. "We just have to be careful that we don't let too much of it in the Deep Creek watershed."
Lou Battistella, president of the Deep Creek Lake property owners' association, says he shares the nostalgia of long-timers for how the lake used to be, but recognizes area businesses could use more customers to sustain them in the off-season.
"People like me, we'd like to see it go back to what it was in the '50s," says the 57-year-old developer from Greenburg, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. "It certainly has changed." On busy summer weekends, Battistella says, he and other lake regulars don't even bother to take their boats out. "But I still love it," he adds. "It doesn't deter me."
David Eyer, a 72-year-old retired mining engineer who splits his time between Deep Creek and Key West, Fla., acknowledges that the fish kill may be a natural phenomenon, since the lake water has been abnormally warm this summer. But he says he's grown concerned by the changes he's seen in the 40 years his family's been coming to the lake.
"Maybe you can't go back," he says. "But no law says you can't try to keep it from getting worse."
An earlier version incorrectly reported that there are no no-wake zones for boaters on Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County. A Department of Natural Resources spokesman said there are some no-wake zones, though state lake managers "want to manage speed a little better on the lake as a whole." The Sun regrets the error.
Deep Creek Lake
•Created in 1925, when Deep Creek was dammed to generate electricity.
•Lake and shoreline buffer bought by state in 2000 from General Public Utility for $17 million
•Water Area: 3,900 acres
•Shoreline: 65 miles
•Watershed: 64.7 square miles
•Population in 1990: 3,174
•Population in 2000: 3,845 (21 percent increase, more than three times the growth countywide)
•Number of homes in lake and vicinity: 5,700 (2005); 50 percent more than in 1990.
•Projected new homes by 2030: 4,050 (Garrett County 2008 master plan)
•Peak season average daily traffic on U.S. 219 bridge across lake: 17,900
•Projected traffic at bridge in 2030: 24,100 vehicles
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