September 17, 2008

A Lake With Little Water / Drought Brings a Cycle of Draining to Mountain Lake

Across what once was a 50-acre marine playground now stretches a startling vista more reminiscent of Arizona's Painted Desert than of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One small pool of water remains on the northwestern end of Mountain Lake's bed, far out of sight of the hotel that bears its name. Retired Virginia Tech biologist Bruce Parker estimates the pool holds about 20 feet of water and is likely the site of a large crack in the subterranean dam that formed the lake more than 6,000 years ago.

Until last week, it's unlikely anyone living had seen the lake so low, Parker said after visiting the Pembroke resort made famous by the 1987 movie "Dirty Dancing," which was filmed there.

Parker has studied and written about the lake's fill-and-drain cycles. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. "I don't think this has probably happened since around 1885 to 1910."

If the lake drains completely, geologists could finally explore and map the underground features of the "big drain," as it's sometimes known. Such access could help scientists better understand the area's hydrological idiosyncrasies. Mountain Lake is one of two naturally occurring freshwater lakes in Virginia and may be the only lake in the world to periodically dry up and then refill itself.

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The lack of water is straining the financial health of the hotel operated there since 1936. Occupancy rates were down 20 percent in June and July, traditionally the hotel's busiest months.

"August was maybe a little bit worse," said hotel manager H.M. "Buzz" Scanland Jr.

This is the second time Scanland has faced this problem. In 2002, the water dropped so low that the board of the Mary Moody Northen Endowment- the Texas-based organization that owns the resort - drilled a test well that it was hoped might produce enough water to refill the lake. The effort failed. But by 2003, conditions shifted and the lake refilled on its own.

Two years ago, the level again began to drop.

Some recent visitors to the resort expressed equal measures of disappointment and fascination with the stark landscape.

"It's disappointing. We knew it was down, but we didn't know it was that far down," said Ann Herbert of Charlottesville, who was visiting with her husband, Rob.

Phyllis and Steve Louis of Cincinnati were in the middle of a four-day visit. The trip was somewhat of a pilgrimage for Phyllis Louis, a big fan of "Dirty Dancing." The Louises said the hotel staff told them when they booked their trip that the lake was drying up. They came anyway.

"We like the mountain air," Steve Louis said.

The Louises are the kind of visitors Scanland is aggressively courting by organizing several "Dirty Dancing"-themed weekends a year. But others who know the lake mourn its loss.

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As the rank smell of hundreds of decaying fish trapped in a mud puddle about 100 feet below the lake's Newport cottage wafted up to where John Farmer stood last week, he shook his head, recalling a misty fall morning eight years ago when he and a friend took a boat out to fish.

"It was beautiful. We were catching rainbow trout and bluegill," Farmer said.

Until now, no dead fish had been found. It is thought that many may have escaped through cracks in the bedrock and into underground streams that feed and drain the lake. One of those streams, called Pond Drain, empties into Little Stony Creek and eventually into the New River, Parker said.

According to core samples taken from the lake bed by Parker and his former students, the pond has dried up at least six times in the past 4,500 years. The samples show it sometimes has remained dry for decades.

Prolonged drought is the cause of the lake's current condition and underscores its role as a local barometer of global climate change.

Parker points to evidence from his core samples that shows low lake levels in Pembroke correspond to a worldwide drought about 1300 that may have contributed to the end of the Anasazi civilization in the southwestern United States and caused widespread famine in Egypt.

Parker said it could take several years of normal or above- normal rainfall to refill the lake. Some snowy winters would be even better.

Meanwhile, Scanland is working on a two-year business plan to revitalize summer businesses at Mountain Lake, focusing on activities other than boating, swimming and fishing. October is coming, and the hotel's annual Oktoberfest celebration should bring in its usual crowd, Scanland said.


Originally published by MOXLEY; The Roanoke Times.

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