A checkup performed by University of Maryland scientists finds Deep Creek Lake appears to be generally healthy. But researchers say there's not enough monitoring done of the popular western Maryland tourist attraction to tell what shape it's really in - or how much trouble it may be having with harmful aglal blooms, polluted runoff or other symptoms of the growth of vacationers and vacation homes at the mountain resort.
So a year after concerns were voiced about the 3,900-acre manmade lake as it experienced its largest recorded fish kill, the first-ever assessment of the lake comes back with an "incomplete" on its ecological report card.
Basic water quality in the lake seemed to be good, and bacteria levels did not appear to pose a health risk for swimming, according to the report by EcoCheck, a partnership between UM's Center for Environmental Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The group was commissioned to produce a report card on the lake last year by Friends of Deep Creek Lake, a citizen's watchdog group. It's raised concerns about water quality being affected by polluted runoff from farms and vacation homes, leaking septic tanks and shoreline erosion. Adding to the anxiety was a prolonged fish kill last summer, in which an estimated 2,000 walleye, perch and a range of other species went belly up from late July into September.
EcoCheck produces annual report cards on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. But the scientists concluded they didn't have enough data to really tell what was happening throughout Deep Creek Lake, so they produced instead what they call a "baseline assessment." Most of the water testing has been done in the middle of the lake, for instance, with relatively little checking of other sections.
Among the question marks, report authors Heath Kelsey and Sara Powell point out that testing for potentially harmful mercury contamination is lacking, as is reliable information on how much grass is growing on the bottom of the lake. Water-quality sampling of the streams feeding into the lake also was limited, but based on low counts of aquatic insects found, they seem to be in relatively poor ecological health, the report said.
Irregular sampling and photos taken by lake residents indicate there are problems with shoreline erosion, with the shallows filling in with sediment and with blooms of potentially harmful algae, the scientists noted. More data also are needed to properly assess the lake's suitability for swimming and boating, the report concluded.
Barbara Beelar, head of the friends group, said it was "very disappointing" not to be able to get a more complete picture of the lake's condition, particularly near the shore where most people swim, fish and canoe or kayak.
"No one is disagreeing with this - the water quality in the middle of the lake is in great shape," Beelar said. "That's very nice for the boats that are traveling in the middle of the lake, but where people recreate is along the shoreline."
The Department of Natural Resources, which manages the lake, already has teamed up with the state Department of the Environment to do more water-quality monitoring, said Bruce Michael, DNR's chief of resource assessment. DNR also is surveying the lake's underwater grasses and has checked on the siltation rates in coves, where some lakefront residents had voiced concerns about not being able to get their boats out in late summer, when the lake water level drops.
Michael said that the study so far has found that most of the coves are not filling in at an accelerated rate.
"All lakes in Maryland are man-made," he explained. "Basically, they're filling up from the day they're created. You're going to have runoff, even if it's a competely forested area - which Deep Creek Lake is not, because of all the development. You're going to see these potential algal blooms up in the headwaters and coves, and see sediment."
Deep Creek Lake was created in 1925 to generate electricity. It was acquired by the state in 2000. There are about 4,600 homes and condominiums around the lake, according to state real estate records, but another 1,000 or so in the vicinity - a 50 percent increase since 1990.
More growth is projected, with Garrett County's 2008 master plan forseeing another 4,050 homes. Traffic crossing the U.S. 219 bridge across the lake also is projected to increase by a third, from nearly 18,000 trips daily to 24,000 by 2030.
Last year's fish kill apparently proved to be unrelated to the concerns voiced by some lake residents about potential pollution. State biologists determined that the fish likely were stressed by abnormally high water temperatures during last summer's prolonged heat wave, and by resulting anaerobic conditions shrinking the area of the lake with enough oxygen for the fish to breathe, according to Jay Apperson, spokesman for the state environmental agency, which investigates fish kills.
Investigators also found the dead fish were infected with a common fresh-water bacterium, aeromonas hydrophila, that can kill them when stressed. The bug can infect humans, though experts say healthy adults are unlikely to get sick from it. Even so, anglers are advised to wear gloves when handling affected fish, covering open wounds and promptly treating any cuts or lacerations - precautions urged in a lot of other waters as well.
The die-off doesn't appear to have affected fish populations in the lake. Michael said spring surveys showed "plenty of fish."
Given the gaps in monitoring of the lake, the university's Kelsey says it may take a couple years of additional monitoring before enough information is gathered to confidently "grade" its health.
Michael says DNR is doing what it can with a limited budget. Meanwhile, the agency is trying to do something about one of the chronic issues at the lake - the noise from all the outboard boats and jetskis out on the water, especially on busy summer weekends. DNR has proposed new sound level limits for vessels using the lake.
"It's a great resource out there," Michael said. "It's certainly used by a lot of citizens, and we want to make sure we have a good understanding of what's happening out there."
(2010 Baltimore Sun photos by Barbara Haddock Taylor)