Sick Lakes

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Until recently, the DNR hasn't done much to stall the deterioration, says Glenn Carowan, a DNR official who is overseeing the development of a comprehensive lake management plan. The lakes have traditionally been relatively low-maintenance. Upkeep is limited to chores such as hand-raking the unwanted plants, and to the peculiar practice of sinking Christmas trees in the water in order to encourage fish communities.

Now, though, the DNR is debating more major steps to restore New Germany, although some strategies seem unlikely to promote the illusion that it is a pristine product of the natural world.

Options include a synthetic cover, not unlike a pool cover, that would float over different portions of the lake at different times, blocking out the sun and preventing plant growth. Or a mat could be spread across the bottom of the lake, stopping vegetation from sprouting.

Grass-eating carp have been introduced to other imperiled lakes, where they munch away at the offending SAVs; herbicides, too, are a potent weapon. And there's always the dye product Aquashade, a favorite of golf courses the world over, because it blocks certain wavelengths of light while turning water a deep, if somewhat unbelievable, blue.

Local activists believe that dredging might be necessary in New Germany, and some states with detailed lake management plans do dredge extensively. Ohio, for instance, employs several year-round dredging crews to maintain an extensive network of man-made lakes that dates back to the canal systems of the mid-1800s.

But dredging is expensive; the estimated cost for pumping 170,000 cubic yards of sediment from two relatively small lakes in the Howard County city of Columbia, for instance, is more than $10 million. Twenty-seven-acre Lake Kittamaqundi and 37-acre Lake Elkhorn were built in 1967 and 1974, respectively; both are being overwhelmed with sediment to the point that some consider them eyesores. The quest to dredge them has dragged on for five years.

Or the state could just let New Germany Lake be, and allow it return to the stream that it was.

"When we say there is a problem with New Germany, we're talking about a problem of human perception," Gregory says. "What are we saving the lake from? Nature?"

These are questions that will likely be raised across the country as artificial lakes age. There are more than 2 million man-made lakes in America, and many of their dams need work. In the next decade more than 400 dams will be removed in Wisconsin alone because of safety concerns, according to Jim Kitchell, director of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin. The associated lakes will for the most part disappear.

But letting New Germany go is simply not an option, says Kathy Tunney, who heads the local committee to save the lake. Along with layers of silt and pollen and dead plants, there are also layers of history in the lake - both Maryland's history and her own family's. Tunney and her husband started coming to New Germany from the Baltimore area more than two decades ago; they recently decided to make it their permanent home, and she's counting on watching her future grandchildren grow up on the little beach.

"They won't come if it's a swamp," she says. "It has to stay a lake. It is beautiful as a lake."

The DNR plans to announce its long-term intentions for the state's lakes later this summer or early in the fall. For now, plans for New Germany include replacing the water control structure and other parts of the dam in September, at a cost of roughly $200,000, and an attempt at "freeze control" this winter, in which the water levels will be brought down to about a foot in order to expose the vegetation to the elements. In the process, much of the bottom will be made visible.

Who knows what human relics will be revealed? Christmas trees, perhaps, and countless fishing hooks. Mike Gregory anticipates finding the concrete-filled barrels that were part of the old swimming docks .

And maybe, Gregory says, there will even be reminders of the Depression-era crews that renovated the lake last time. Old-timers still speak of a worker who fell through the ice one winter. Men supposedly lost their tools in the water while attempting a rescue.

They were too late. The man is buried in a cemetery near the lake that outlived him.

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