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.
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