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And Keoka Took a Bruisin’

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

by Charlie Tarbell

Water quality at the start of the 2023 season is the worst we have seen in many years. Clarity is abysmal, even in shallow areas. Oxygen is high, but the phosphorus and chlorophyll counts are way off trend. The test results are alarming and we know just what the root cause is.

Waterford, indeed the entire Northeast, was hit with two large storms during the “off season.” First, winter storm Elliot (a bomb cyclone) struck on Christmas Eve eve (December 23, 2022). We live on the north side of Keoka and were at home for the storm. Winds were from the south, across the lake (not usually seen in the winter), at 60-70 MPH. Our lakeside windows shook and I was certain some would blow out. Limbs ripped down from the pines crashed against the house. Our neighbor had a pine spear through their roof and penetrate through the attic to the second floor. And on top of the snowless frozen ground, we received 2 inches of rain in about four hours. The water had nowhere to go.

The streams that feed Keoka ran heavy, overbanking and sending water surging overland toward the lake, picking up phosphorus as they ran. Roads, culverts, and trails “blew out.” The new boat launch “blew out.” As anyone living on the north side of Keoka can testify, the blow-down of limbs was monumental. And the next day, December 24, 2022, the ice went out for a second time in 2022 (first time was in April). The lake level also surged.

At that point, we opened up the dam wide and left it that way for the balance of the winter, trying to anticipate another such event. We typically like to lower the lake down to its annual lowest in the late fall and keep it that way through the winter to prevent the water level surge that comes with spring rain and snow melt. We have never left the dam wide open all winter. We were worried about another storm like Elliot.

Well, the spring rains came and the snow pack went. The runoff managed to stay in the banks of the streams and the lake level rose, but never reached a historical high. We set the dam opening to preserve water levels at early summer level. There were no more big rainstorms.

Until May 1.

Overnight on May 1, Waterford received 5 inches of rain. The usual culprits and then more “blew out.” Any undersized culverts were overwhelmed. Many roads were impassable. The stream beside my house badly overbanked and blew out our lakeside paths. And that was just a microcosm of the damage around town. The lake level surged to an historic level. I’ve never seen it so high. Many docks and floats, secured just above the usual high-water mark, were afloat. My dock floated away (I retrieved it). I tied my neighbors’ docks to a tree. Most people had to delay putting in their docks until the water level subsided.

On May 2, the back side of the storm blew through with 40 MPH winds from the south. The combination of the high water and the strong winds lashed the shoreline on the north side. There was significant shoreline erosion, undercutting the banking and pulling material into the lake. Needless to say, we opened the dam wide and the spillway ran strong for ten days after. One result of the high water was the debris that was pulled into the lake and consequently floated over to the dam. We (The Dam Team, Nick Archer, Al Struck, Glen Merrill, and myself) had to visit the dam numerous times per day to keep the mouth clear of jammed debris.

I noticed immediately how opaque the water seemed. Indeed, when Andy Tabor set the loon nest on station on May 6, he couldn’t locate the anchors for the warning buoys due to lack of water clarity. I lost the anchor buoy to my raft and still can’t see to the bottom to find it. Spring runoff typically brings in tannins and decreases water quality, but the results from this storm were wicked. All that water, running over the ground and picking up tannins and phosphorus was a real setback to efforts to improve water quality.

If these large storms are a taste of what climate change is to bring us, KLA and indeed, our members, will need to rethink many aspects of lake life: dock and boat storage, culvert adequacy, dam management, stream and shoreline armoring, “normal” water levels, and real and personal property security against winds, among others, I’m sure.

But in the short term, we hope for a “normal” spring and summer with adequate rainfall for plant health but without the high winds and torrential downpours we have suffered. We hope that owners who have suffered damage to their drainage system will make the appropriate repairs and, better yet, take the opportunity to improve surface water management to minimize the adverse impact on the lake from even “normal” storms.

With luck the water testing results will return to our trend line by the middle of the summer.

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