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People Need Lakes and Lakes Need People; Friends of Claytor Lake

After Hurricane Florence hit the southeast coast last month, Claytor Lake, hundreds of miles away in southwestern Virginia, took a hit.  More than fifteen tons of debris ended up in the lake – everything from the usual ‘flotsam and jetsam’ to at least one toilet, a mannequin, and an empty boat.

This part of Virginia is not home to very many lakes, and that means people here work hard to keep them clean and healthy. 

“Not many people know that the New River is one of the only rivers that flows north,” says Jeff Caldwell, Executive Director of Friends of Claytor Lake. “So, most of the stuff that comes into the lake, it comes from Boone and Asheville area, so that sort of throws people off when they start looking at the weather and seeing rains and if we get a monsoon here, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to affect the lake. If Asheville gets a monsoon, then we’re in trouble for a little while."

And sure enough, it wasn’t long before all that driftwood and detritus has been dragged out of the lake, with help from the friends, work crews and several nonprofit organizations. And that network of people who care about lakes is vital to its health and longevity said Kelly Cobourn, assistant professor of water resource policy in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  “We’re trying to understand: How do people make decisions about using the land and what does that mean for water quality of the lake over the long run?”

Cobourn is the lead investigator on a project in its third year exploring how humans and lakes affect one another.  They’re finding, that when people feel a connection to a lake, “It can galvanize people to come together and start to work around a common cause,” she says.

That’s what started it all back in 1992, when a disaster lead to the formation of “Friends of Claytor Lake.” A chemical spill in Pulaski county turned the water blood red.  It took a crisis to call attention to the importance of lake health and safety, but these days, it can be subtler, less dramatic things that threaten the health of the lakes.

“We might have a mowed lawn that comes to right up to the shoreline, like it does here. How do we think about how we prevent that fertilizer from running off into the water?” Cobourn says those fertilizers full of nitrates and sometimes phosphorous are considered the largest threats to many lakes.

“So, you could think about when you put the fertilizer on, because if you put it on before a rain, that could be problematic.  Or you could think about creating buffers, like for example there’s a little bit of a buffer here that’s rocky, but it may be preferable to put in a buffer that is some form of plant life that would pick up the nutrients before they run into the lake.”

Claytor Lake is just under 5,000 acres, a relatively small water body. It was created by the Appalachian Power Company, which built a hydro-electric dam on the New River in 1939. Project manager of the lake health study, Reilly Henson, says, fortunately, it borders Claytor Lake a State Park, so it’s mostly surrounded by huge forests “Forest tends to be really good for the watershed because they provide a large area where natural processes can continue and where people aren’t actively putting it into the watershed.”

But there are other threats to Claytor lake that no one is putting into the watershed, on purpose anyway.

Jeff Caldwell says the invasive water plant called, Hydrilla is like Kudzu of the lake. “Hydrilla will completely engulf other vegetation and choke it off.”

He’s been leading the struggle to beat back the invasive plant that hitched a ride here from China. Unfortunately, it’s an excellent traveler. “If you put your boat in the water and just graze across a plant and then you stick your boat in the water in Smith Mountain lake, you just moved Hydrilla from Claytor to Smith Mountain Lake.”

Caldwell says you can’t ever get rid of it entirely.  A few years ago, they introduced a species of Carp into the water to eat the invasive plants and they do a pretty good job of keeping them in check, but no matter what they do, the plants will come back.  And that’s one reason that Claytor Lake will need to continue making new friends, who can help keep it a clean and healthy source of recreation and drinking water in the New River Valley.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.