Planned lake dredging is relief to Laurel Lakes residents

The bad news is that the smaller of the two lakes that make up Laurel Lakes is almost filled in with trees, bushes, cattails and other shrubbery. Only a small portion of that upper lake, near Oxford Street, has a section of water visible from the decks of the surrounding town houses along its banks.

The good news is that some time next year, Prince George's County officials, who have authority over the water in the lakes, plan to dredge the upper lake, something many local residents have been calling for over the past 10 years.

"We are in the process of going in and have consultants doing engineering designs to get all of the sediment out and clean it up to look like it did when it was first dug," said George Nicol, section head of the Department of Environmental Resources Design Unit. "We will dredge the entire upper lake, hopefully by next year, and try to fix the Oxford Street culvert that feeds into the upper lake, so it functions better."

Survey teams have been working around the lake over the past few weeks and Nicol said the initial design plans for a third of the project will be completed by May 10. After various reviews and adjustments are made, he estimated that the layout for the entire project will be completed by October.

"We will have to submit them to the Maryland Department of Environmental Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers for review once they are approved and the Maryland Department of Parks and Planning to approve the trees that will be taken out," Nicol said. "There are also wetlands in the middle of the lake."

Although most residents refer to the upper and lower lake as just that, lakes, they are actually storm water ponds that were dug when the housing development was built to collect runoff after rain storms. However, they were marketed as sparkling lakes in brochures and residents who bought property along the banks of the ponds thought they would remain that way. But over the years, as they functioned as the storm water runoff ponds that they are, the upper lake slowly began to fill and the water in both went from sparkling to a murky, muddy brown.

Mike Lhotsky, director of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, said his office has received lots of complaints from homeowners over the years. He thinks residents of the Laurel Lakes community and those who jog and walk around the upper lake will be glad to hear that dredging is on the way.

"It will make residents happy to have a lake in their yards again and it will aesthetically improve the appearance of both lakes," Lhotsky said.

Disappointing deck view

The county's decision to dredge will certainly be good news to Donald Williford's ears. The deck of his home overlooks the upper lake and as a member of the Citizens Committee to Save Laurel Lakes, he has pushed to have both lakes cleaned up for more than 10 years. He said he and his wife never go on their deck these days.

"What for, to look at all of that?" he said. "We got trees six inches in diameter in the middle of the lake and we haven't seen the water in ages. I don't see anyone sitting on their decks these days. If we'd seen it looking like this, we wouldn't have moved here. It looks terrible."

Williford said he has seen contractors surveying the lake for dredging purposes, but said no one could give him a time frame of when it would actually be done. He assumed the dredging would be years down the road and said he had just about given up ever seeing the water quality improve.

"We've fought the good fight and I'd heard that they wouldn't dredge until the lower lake, where the fireworks are held and the paddle boats are, was threatened," he said. "But it's a matter of money. I'd accepted the fact that they wouldn't do anything until they decided to put the money in it."

Nicol said the money needed to do the work on the Oxford Street culvert and the dredging has been allocated. He said the entire project will cost $1 million.

"It's expensive, but I don't see how dredging can be avoided," said Anne Collins, president of the Citizens Committee to Save Laurel Lakes. "The water is muddy most of the time, but I use my deck and when the sun hits the lake at the right time to reflect the sky in the evening, it's a pretty view, which is why I've spent so many years trying to save it."

During the many years of calls for dredging, all sides agreed that something had to be done to stop the runoff of sediment, silt and other pollutants into the lakes from defunct mining operations, construction sites and eroding embankments upstream. Lhotsky said county officials have worked on those issues over the past few years.

"The county has spent a lot of money on holding ponds and stabilizing banks (in the lakes' watershed)," Lhotsky said. "Behind the (Laurel Volunteer) Fire Department on the right side just past the hospital, they did a lot to keep that sediment out of the upper lake."

According to Nicol, other projects are in the pipeline to continue the county's efforts to stop runoff upstream from ending up in the lakes.

"We will do water quality enhancements and other environmental improvements in the watershed to reduce upstream sediments to enhance the lakes," Nicol said. "We want to make sure that the money we will spend will be a long-lasting fix and want the frequency of dredging to be longer than every 10 years. But we can't rule out dredging forever (in future years)."

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