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Lake Elkhorn dredging to resume, but runoff is larger problem

Dredging of Columbia's 37-year-old Lake Elkhorn will resume, but curbing residential runoff that carries sediment and algae-producing nutrients into it is the key to its long-term health, a panel of four experts told a crowd composed mostly of Owen Brown residents Tuesday night.

"We're going to need your help in restoring water quality," the Columbia Association's watershed director, John McCoy, told more than 80 people at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center. Lake Elkhorn, he said "was built to trap sediment, and it's done a very good job of that." But curbing nutrients is the key to eliminating the ugly weeds and green algae, he added.

"Dredging is a big thing," said Ned Tillman, chairman of Howard County's Environmental Sustainability Board. "A bigger thing is all of us figuring out how to deal with our backyards."

McCoy said his team is designing projects to help stem the flow of storm-water runoff into the 37-acre lake and that the Columbia Association has obtained $730,000 in grant funding. But 70 percent of the land in the watershed is residential and privately owned, he said, which is why things like rain barrels, rain gardens and other devices to slow or trap runoff are so important.

As if to emphasize the point, a brief downpour drummed loudly on the roof.

Tillman got the biggest reaction of the two-hour meeting when he said the growing numbers of resident Canada geese are a major problem. The big birds produce 30 to 50 goslings at Elkhorn each spring and large amounts of waste, adding to the nutrient problem.

The crowd erupted in applause when he said, "I think we really need to get rid of these resident geese."

But McCoy and Charles "Chick" Rhodehamel, a Columbia Association vice president who oversaw its open space for 30 years, offered little encouragement, noting that federal permits would be required.

Rhodehamel said a watershed that starts "on the front lawn of Howard High School," miles to the north, supplies Lake Elkhorn.

McCoy said the watershed covers 2,500 acres, nearly one-third of it paved surface or rooftops that shed water that runs quickly into storm drains and streams, carrying mud and chemicals into the lake.

"Eleven times the water volume of the lake runs off the land each year," he said.

Panel member Sherm Garrison, water-quality program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said his reaction was "wow" after seeing the bright green covering over much of the surface of Lake Elkhorn in a Google map view last year, when dredging was under way. He said the group was lucky to have the Columbia Association working on the project.

Despite the problems, Rhodehamel defended Columbia's lakes as helping to prevent sediment from washing into nearby rivers. "We're doing a big job of protecting the Chesapeake," he said.

Dick Krantz, who organized the meeting, credited fellow neighborhood resident Elaine Pardoe with organizing the Committee for Lake Elkhorn's Environmental Restoration several years ago. CLEER pushed the Columbia Association to create a watershed management plan and hire a full-time watershed manager — something its leaders opposed.

Meanwhile the long-planned dredging project stopped abruptly last winter amid recriminations and legal action.

Mobile Pumping and Dredging of Chester, Pa., began preparing to dredge Elkhorn, Columbia's largest lake, in late 2009. The dredging began in spring 2010 and continued until December, when work was halted for the winter. The dredging was not resumed because the Columbia Association did not extend the $5.2 million contract. Mobile removed its equipment in March.

Mobile Pumping and Dredging filed a $1 million lawsuit against the Columbia Association in November, alleging that work had not been paid for and that the sediment had not been measured since 2006, failing to account for years of heavy storms that dumped tons of mud into the lake, making the dredging job more extensive than expected. The lawsuit is pending.

The homeowners association has been looking for a new dredging firm since early May. Rhodehamel said bidders have until July 6 to submit proposals to finish the job. Meanwhile, the soupy green algae that has been common in recent years has returned, and the Columbia Association has three floating algae-cutting machines working at Lake Elkhorn.

Lake Elkhorn, built in 1974-1975, has never been fully dredged. Another company is dredging Lake Kittamaqundi, and more work is due for Wilde Lake, the smallest of Columbia's three lakes.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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