DEATH OF A LAKE
by Jim Porter
It was the Spring of 1996 when the dam broke on Louisa Reservoir. The local anglers, many of whom gave of their weekends to its waters, gathered on what was once the shoreline to mourn its passing. What had once been a beautifully clear, sparkling lake now bared its soul to all observers--an ugly scar in the earth decorated by oozing, greenish-brown slime, encrusted drink cans, and a rusted mass that once was the pride of Frigidaire. A small trickle of water continued to run along the old Louisa Creek channel, seemingly intent on reclaiming what was once its natural domain.
Old man Flynn, who ran the only drug store in town, surveyed the remnants of the place his father had taught him to fish so many years before and shook his head slowly in disbelief. Even though the fishing hadn't been so good in the last few years, the beckoning waters had been like an old friend, serving as a place of solitude and comfort in the hectic world of Man and his modern society. A part of his childhood had died and, with it, a little bit of Flynn, too.
At the lower end of what had been Louisa, Del Nixon also gazed out across the still-damp mud flats with a bit of personal agony. His small marina had served a fairly good clientele on weekends and holidays and had provided a base for the many commercial fishermen who lined and netted the waters. Though things hadn't been too good recently, the boaters and ski buffs had provided enough weekend income to stay open. Now, things were going to be tough. Del had spent about all his spare dollars in helping the commercial boys fight and win against the anti-netting ordinances that were brought up the year before. Ironically enough, even though they'd won in court, most of the commercial fishermen had folded their nets and moved on to other waters anyway. The fishing just wasn't what it used to be.
Jimmy Patterson was ten years old the month before the dam collapsed and his Dad had bought him his very own fishing outfit as a birthday gift. Living right on the lake shore, Jimmy had practiced every day from the bank, hoping to become proficient enough that his Father would take him along on his weekend fishing club tournaments. Although he'd yet to catch a fish on his shiny, new rig, he had been persistent and really worked at it. Like any kid his age, Jimmy wanted to emulate his Dad and bring home those big stringers of bass every Saturday afternoon. Then, he could call HIS friends over to admire his ability and manliness, too. Maybe they could even eat some of the fish he caught. He'd heard that they were real good.
Betty Jean Wilson didn't care too much about the fishing aspects of Louisa but thought it sure was a shame that the lake had been lost. Luckily, no one downstream had been injured by the raging wall of water that had suddenly erupted into the valley. Noting she had a bit of time before reporting to work, Ms. Wilson pulled off the shoulder of Lakeside Drive for a curious look. "A lot of mud and junk", she though, as she stared across the desolate scene. The wind currents swirled a foul odor from the lake bed and, crinkling up her nose, Betty Jean beat a hasty retreat to her car.
The local City Council had its problems, too. For a good number of years, Louisa Reservoir had provided the dumping ground for the city's sewage treatment facility. Even with a major bond sale, the recent acquisition of an additional treatment module had nearly depleted the city funds. Now, it was unnecessary, in that there was no lake to environmentally protect. On top of that, the remaining small creek was insufficient to support the ever-increasing discharge volume. They'd probably have to beg the 'Feds' for a grant to purchase another couple of those treatment sets, which would be somewhat embarrassing, considering the resistance they'd given to the EPA decree that they acquire the first one. The lake had always been big enough to dissipate the waste before. Maybe those Washington bureaucrats would just rebuild the dam, instead, and make it easier on everyone.
Charles Rogers had been a State biologist and conservation activist for a long time. He'd had an impotent hand in trying to get the anti-netting bill passed on Louisa's waters and had been the instigator of the study that had declared the local sewage plant inadequate. Rogers had grown up on the banks of the reservoir and, like many others, felt the passing of a friend with its demise. It was only recently that his department had undertaken a study of the lake, in hopes of trying to ascertain why its fishing productivity was on such a decline. The file cabinet marked 'Shannon County' was jammed with letters from concerned citizens and organized groups complaining of the lack of fish stocking programs, the foul smelling waters, the 'pros and cons' on the netting issue, and the general conditions of Lake Louisa. It appeared that, no matter what the complaint, nearly every voiced concern labeled the Government as being at fault. Charlie thumbed through the protruding files and, then, wrote a memo requesting that the evaluation of Louisa be continued for another week, even though the lake proper no longer existed.
On the third day following the failure of the dam, the weather changed and an approaching cold front caused the winds to shift. The small community of Louisa was enveloped by a foul smell from the area of the lake's remains. Soon, the primary topic of discussion was the rancid odor. Most blamed it on the dead fish which were obviously left behind as the lake waters cascaded away. Bill Patterson, Jimmy's Dad, was heard to remark that it smelled like his garbage can on Sunday afternoon, after a hard Saturday's fishing.
Charles Rogers and two of his associates arrived four days after the incident. With a small Jon boat and hip boots, they began to explore what was once the bottom of the lake. Small, remaining pools were seined for fish and samples of bottom materials were taken from various areas of the lake bed. The heavy, mucus-like slime was everywhere and emitted an odor like unto organic decay. Rogers noted an absence of birds, which normally prey heavily on low water conditions and the corresponding abundance of easy-to-get food.
On the fifth day, Bill Patterson brought in a nice limit of bass and crappie for his friends to admire and to get his picture in Sunday's sports page. He'd been to a lake in the next county where fishing was good! The commercial gill- netter had also had a good day on that same lake, filling the fish market boxes with catfish and carp and dutifully tossing back the mortally wounded game fish. Jimmy Patterson still wanted to go fishing with his Dad, and the City Council was planning a cross-county sewage pipeline. Del Nixon closed his marina for good and Betty Jean Wilson was laid off her job. Charles Rogers cried.
With dawning of the sixth day, the morning newspaper was thrown against 7,324 door steps in Louisa Township. For one and all, the headlines were the same: "Louisa Was A Dead Lake!" The article continued, "State biologists, conducting a survey of the remains of Lake Louisa and the area below the dam site, have concluded that there was no significant fish, or other aquatic life, in the lake at the time of the collapse of the dam. In the small, residual pools of water remaining in the lake area, State personnel accounted for only one small bass and a few perch. The area below the dam gave no indication that any significant numbers of fish had been washed over. Local commercial and sport fishing groups blame the State fishery management agencies for the now- recognized condition of our fine lake."
Think about it.
Do something. Get involved. The future is now. We can control it, if we but take that first step.)
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