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Water Ways

A “NATURAL HISTORY” OF HOWARD COUNTY’S LAKES

STORY BY Jason Tinney

waterways1A mallard duck enjoys a peaceful moment at Lake Elkhorn, a 37-acre body of water built by the Columbia Association in 1974. PHOTO BY André ChungI’ve been blessed with a 13-year-old daughter who still loves to fish. Despite cluttered calendars, the perpetual “on-the-go” bowling ball careening through precious days, we still find time to cast our lines and sit, chat and reflect. My goal-oriented daughter, unlike me however, is much more interested in catching than fishing.

Centennial Lake in Ellicott City is listed among the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) freshwater fishing “hotspots.” According to DNR’s website, the 54-acre manmade impoundment, managed by Howard County Recreation and Parks, is home to a healthy population of largemouth bass and is regularly stocked with rainbow trout, bluegills, tiger muskie and channel catfish.

Always on the hunt for new locales to test the waters, I took a detour on the way home and paid Centennial Lake a visit. Perched on a picnic table overlooking the sprawling lake, I watch a great blue heron take flight from a nearby bank and glide over the soft ripples glittering in the fading afternoon sun and disappear into a thick cluster of oaks, pines and sycamores shouldering the shoreline. Walkers and joggers, young couples arm-in-arm, mothers with little ones secure in strollers, handlers of forlorn basset hounds and well-chiseled German shepherds, even a man on a unicycle – the parade circled the two-and-a-half mile pathway that snakes around the lake.

What is it about a lake that transports us, provides us a canvas not only for recreation but contemplation?
“Well, the water certainly is the magic,” says Jennie DeArmey, a park operation superintendent for Howard County Recreation and Parks. “Maybe it takes you out of your life in some fashion.”

Maryland has the distinction of being the only state in the country without natural lakes. The reason for this has to do with various geological occurrences. Nearly 75 percent of natural lakes are glacial in origin. Glaciers, however, never entered Maryland during the last Great Ice Age.

waterways2Above, walkers, joggers and cyclists enjoy the two-mile path that encircles Lake Elkhorn.     PHOTO BY André Chung“The action of the glacier can carve out depressions in bedrock that can subsequently fill with water and form lakes,” says David Bolton, chief of the Hydrogeology and Hydrology Program at the Maryland Geological Survey.

As Bolton explains, the absence of glaciers allows the landscape to evolve and develop integrated networks that flow into rivers or the ocean.

Although Howard County lakes aren’t natural, that doesn’t mean they are without nature. These quiet settings – tranquil respites – provide residents much needed contact with the natural world. And many are just off Route 29.

In addition to Centennial, there are five large, publicly-accessible lakes and reservoirs spread throughout the county. Columbia is home to three.

Taking its name from the first recorded Native American settlement in Howard County, Lake Kittamaqundi, which means “meeting place,” is a 27-acre lake in the heart of Columbia Town Center. This popular gathering spot for summer festivals, particularly the Fourth of July fireworks, features a wooden pier and launching ramp and even has its own island – Nomanizan.

Wilde Lake, upstream from Kittamaqundi, shares its name, of course, with the surrounding village. At one time, a small stream flowed through a low-lying meadow that forms the base of the 22-acre lake, which is circled by a 1.46 mile walking path. A dam stands 15 feet high and is 200 feet wide with a face constructed of four poured concrete steps embedded with logs to accentuate the cascading water.

Stocked with trout each spring, Lake Elkhorn, off Broken Land Parkway, provides a boat dock and pavilions and is surrounded by a 23-acre park. The two-mile path around the lake features a series of fitness stations.
Both Kittamaqundi and Wilde Lake were built by the Columbia Association in 1967, while Elkhorn followed in 1974. All three lakes were constructed for regional storm water management during Columbia’s development and still serve that purpose. However, it was Jim Rouse’s intention that these functioning “ponds” would transition into the amenities they’ve become.

waterways3Lake Elkhorn     PHOTO BY André ChungOn the southern border, Howard also shares two large reservoirs with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties – Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge (also known as T. Howard Duckett Reservoir) respectively. Built in 1943, Triadelphia, located on the Patuxent River, spans 800 acres and is home to a five-acre woodland garden with more than 20,000 azaleas that bloom each May.

Down river, Rocky Gorge was constructed nearly a decade after Triadelphia and covers 773 acres. Both reservoirs are maintained as a drinking water source by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). Portions of the properties are open to the public and WSSC provides facilities for hiking, picnicking, fishing and boating.

While these lakes and reservoirs were not created by a shifting mass of ice but a diesel-powered bulldozer – and, in many cases, their purpose has been to harness nature – it is the harmony with nature that has made them a magnet for residents. They have become a refuge in this suburban sandwich between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The largest of the “lakes” and a part of the Little Patuxent River watershed, Centennial, like the lakes of Columbia, was originally designed for flood control, as well as recreation. The lake is the centerpiece to an award-winning 325-acre park, with amenities that include pavilions and tennis and basketball courts. According to DeArmey, the park sees 1.5 million visitors annually.

Centennial and Wilde Lake in Columbia have special meaning to artist Carol Cathcart who moved to the area in 1968. “I remember taking my children there when they were little and now, of course, they’re in their 40s,” she says. “It has those kinds of roots for me and other people who have been in Columbia that long.”

Cathcart and her husband recently moved to the Eastern Shore but she still visits Columbia about once a month to walk the lakes with friends. And she has fond memories of heading to Centennial before dawn. “That was amazing because I always wondered: How do people sleep through the bird’s song and beauty of that time of morning?” she recalls.

A few weeks after my visit to Centennial, my daughter and I scouted another fishing spot at Lake Elkhorn in the Village of Owen Brown. We walked the two-mile path that circles the 37-acre lake bordered by a wide variety of trees: river birches, bald cypresses, Korean dogwoods and hornbeams among them. My daughter paused to read the interpretive tags created by the Howard County Arboreta (sponsored by Howard County Forest Conservancy District Board).

“A little oasis in the built-in environment” is how John McCoy, watershed manager for the Columbia Association (CA), describes Lake Elkhorn. “It’s an interesting place for interaction with wildlife. It’s a refuge. We have wonderful wildlife: owls, birds of prey, fishing birds … different types of herons. The bird watching for those who enjoy it is really unique.”

Before taking the position with CA in 2010, McCoy spent 25 years working for the state’s DNR and Department of the Environment, focusing on pollution reduction and watershed restoration. Over the last two years, McCoy and CA have implemented a host of strategies to confront problems facing the lakes. Elkhorn is in the second phase of a major dredging project.

“Too much sediment, too many nutrients, too much nitrogen, too much phosphorous,” says McCoy. “This is the same problem that pretty much everybody has everywhere. This is the urban end of the issue with the bay.”

Residents can employ simple steps to protect their lakes – such as disconnecting the lower parts of down spouts to allow runoff to discharge into yards or gardens. Another practice is leaving fallen leaves on the lawn and grinding them in place.

“You don’t want to smother your lawn; if it’s too thick, rake some of it off,” McCoy says. “Use that as mulch in your garden. But building organic matter builds soils and helps infiltration, and the more water we get in the ground the better off we are going to be.”

Before making her morning commute to Washington, D.C., Columbia resident Marilyn Dorfman, like Carol Cathcart, used to rise early to walk Centennial.

“It was kind of a way to get centered,” she says.

Dorfman no longer has to deal with the D.C. commute, and although she doesn’t have to get up as early, she’s still a morning walker who also enjoys strolls at Elkhorn and Wilde Lake. “In the morning there are always the same people,” she says. “You get a nodding acquaintance with a lot of people … One sweet old man always says, ‘Good morning young lady.’ And I’m far from young. It’s just nice connections you have with people.”

Paths circle the lakes, just as seasons circle the lives of those who visit them. For Dorfman therein lies, perhaps, a deeper thread to this place, this still body of water, the center of its own little universe.

“Seeing the flowers when they start to bloom and the leaves when they start to change, the fall leaves reflecting in the water,” she says, “the connection to nature, to tranquility, to other people – strangers who are not strangers – it’s just a wonderful resource we have here in Howard County.

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