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Lake Lariat placed under fishing limits

Water still considered safe for swimming

Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Don’t drink the water — or eat too much of the fish.

On Friday, Jan. 25, residents of the Chesapeake Ranch Estates in Lusby gathered to discuss the plight of Lake Lariat, the community’s 100-acre artificial lake. Created in 1965 by damming Mill Creek, the lake was intended as another amenity for what was then envisioned as a resort community for vacationers.

But since its creation, the lake has come to resemble the rest of the troubled Chesapeake Bay watershed. Like the bay it feeds into, Lake Lariat is plagued by runoff, algae blooms and mercury.

In a 2002 report, the Maryland Department of the Environment warned citizens to limit their consumption of fish from the lake to no more than one meal a month because of mercury pollution.

Pregnant women and small children were asked to eat even less; mercury compounds attack developing brains and nerves, making children and fetuses particularly vulnerable to damage (A general fishing advisory covering all Maryland fish is also in place; mercury contamination is worldwide).

The report’s authors arrived at their conclusion by testing large-mouth bass from Lake Lariat. In the flesh of the fish, they found mercury concentrations almost four times the limit for what MDE would consider a ‘‘fishable” body of water.

Bill Hopkins, an avid fisherman who calls himself the lake’s ‘‘unofficial historian,” will no longer eat what he catches in the lake. Having worked for its restoration, Hopkins wants to see it become healthy again so people can again enjoy the outstanding fishing it provides.

‘‘It’s better fishing than St. Mary’s, even,” Hopkins said.

Barry Marseglia Sr., 49, says county or neighborhood officials should have done more to warn residents about the risk.

He’s lived in CRE for 13 years, and his children and grandchildren grew up fishing and eating from Lake Lariat until he learned, just weeks ago, that the 2002 report said people should limit the amount of fish they eat from there.

Had he known about the mercury, he would have kept the children away, he said.

Despite the hundreds of dollars CRE residents pay in special taxes to the privately owned community each year, ‘‘we aren’t worth $150 worth of paint and plywood for a couple of signs. My opinion is, if people knew there was a huge problem with that lake, like it is, [property values in] this place would plummet,” he said. At the meeting, Marseglia’s son, Barry Marseglia Jr., 24, also criticized county and neighborhood authorities.

‘‘I got three children that’s been eating two meals a day out of the lake. Like I said, there’s no signs posted. ... To be honest, I was pretty ticked off about it,” said Barry Marseglia Jr.

But Lariat committee member George Zarecki said no one deserves to be saddled with the blame: ‘‘We can’t point fingers at each other because none of us were in charge of doing anything for the lake.”

June Mellinger, president of the board of directors of the CRE Property Owners Association, faulted the Calvert County Health Department for not having done more to warn residents.

‘‘The county health department is responsible for people who live in this state. I don’t care if we’re a private community. I’m sorry, I get very emotional over these things,” she said.

Mellinger and another board member in attendance, Richard Navickas, did not return calls seeking comment after the meeting.

Although Lake Lariat is technically private property, Calvert County Health Officer David Rogers said the health department does monitor water quality near the lake’s bathing areas, and posted signs one year warning about a microbe that can cause skin and intestinal problems.

As for fish from the lake, Rogers said Lake Lariat’s condition is hardly unique, and caution should be the norm.

‘‘The world is full of hazards. I guess you’ve got to keep your eyes open,” he said. ‘‘ ... Lake Lariat is in the same condition as other bodies in Maryland are, and there are limitations on the number of fish that people should eat, particularly if you’re a child or a pregnant woman. I’d be surprised if somebody would be unaware” of the risks.

Although the fish may be risky, the water is still safe for swimming.

Because mercury is concentrated at each step up in the food chain and large-mouth bass are at the top of theirs, the bass flesh contains the highest mercury concentration anywhere in the lake. Mercury levels in the water are only a tiny fraction of the level found in the fish.

However, as of 2002, the loads of mercury entering the lake were more than five times greater than the ‘‘maximum allowable load” which would allow a gradual reduction of mercury levels in the water to the point that the lake would again be ‘‘fishable.” And avoiding mercury is difficult, because most of it enters the lake through air deposition from sources outside the state, according to the report.

While perhaps the most dramatic, mercury is not Lake Lariat’s only problem; the lake also shares the bay’s problems with nutrients and sediment from rain and runoff.

But Don Statter, along with other volunteers with the Lake Lariat Clam Project, hope diligent bivalves can turn the situation around.

Statter, who is also president of the board of directors of the Chesapeake Ranch Water Company, is working with a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in hopes that a resurrected clam community would be up to the task of filtering out sediment, nutrients and dangerous microorganisms.

Associate Professor Thaddeus Graczyk said a ‘‘pretty sizeable amount of money” from the National Science Foundation will be required for the project, which he hopes could start in 2009.

‘‘What we propose to do is use freshwater clams, bivalves that are filter-feeder organisms, and we are going to locate them in different parts of the lake in order for the clams to recover suspended matter in the water,” Graczyk said. ‘‘This will improve water clarity and also water quality, so there will be deeper penetration of the light into the lake and also microbiological contaminants will be removed by the clams.”

Among the microorganisms the clams could tackle would be fecal coliform bacteria from human waste, as well as enteric pathogens that primarily infect the gastrointestinal tract but can do more widespread damage in patients with weakened immune systems.

Bathers, fishermen and anyone else who could get contaminated water into his mouth could be at risk of infection, he said.

‘‘I will be crossing my fingers to get the money to get the project,” Graczyk said.

Statter declined to comment directly on the project, referring questions to the project Web site.


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