Ups and downs in pond draw-downs debated

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The water level of two county ponds is being lowered about a foot so homeowners can maintain docks, in a decades-old program some fear upset the ecology and harm wildlife.

But Chuck Poole, superintendent of parks for Wicomico County, said it isn’t a county-mandated program, but done at the request of homeowners who live around the ponds.

“It’s not a perfect situation. It’s a compromise. I do believe that some maintenance needs to be done and I would say the damage is minimal looking at what I’ve seen, at what rejuvenates itself. We do the best we can,” Poole said.

But Bill Nelson, a specialist for environmental studies who teaches at Salisbury University and lives on Leonard’s Mill, would like to see the program stop.

“It really unbalances the ecosystem,” he said.

He and his wife live in a forested swamp that runs into the pond. They have about 12 acres, he said, and much of it is sensitive to the water level.

“We’ve been living there eight years, so there have been three or four times the pond has been drawn down,” he said, explaining most of the small pond in their back yard becomes muddy.

Dozens of freshwater mussels are eaten by raccoons and possums. One year, Nelson found more than 60 mussel shells, after they had been eaten. Because they can live as long as humans, they won’t regenerate in his lifetime, Nelson said.

Also during drawdowns, he has seen painted turtles walking across ice on his pond. “The mud dries out and I assume they are desperately looking for somewhere else to go. When all the acres and acres of the bottom is exposed, all the predators have a field day. The foxes eat the ducks and the same thing happens to wild waterfowl,” he said.

Tony Tank has been drained so that residents can repair docks. Controversy exists about how much damage the draw-downs may do to the ecosystem.

Tony Tank has been drained so that residents can repair docks. Controversy exists about how much damage the draw-downs may do to the ecosystem.

SU biology profession Dr. Judith Stribling said turtles hibernate in mud, so when water levels drop, it subjects them to freezing.

Drawing down could benefit grasses on the bottom of the pond, “but not necessarily, because they will come right back,” she said.

“It’s not bad or good for them, but it’s not good for wildlife,” she said.

Drawdowns are done by the county every other year, and might be changed to every third year. The 2015 schedule is Tony Tank Pond, Jan. 2 to Feb. 11, and Leonard’s Mill Pond, Jan. 5 to Feb. 5.

Coulbourne Mill Pond is usually on the schedule, but is not being lowered this year because the dam structure is faulty and must be repaired, Poole said. Fishing is prohibited during drawdowns, but hasn’t been harmed at Leonard’s Mill, a prime fishing spot, he said.

Still, Nelson is convinced it’s unnecessary.

“I’ve never known anywhere in the United States where people are able to draw down bodies of water to work on their docks, so, obviously, there are people who work on their docks without this,” he said.

He and his wife are opposed, “and our vote should have some weight as well,” he said about the homeowners’ association vote.

“They maintain docks on the Nanticoke River all the time without drawdowns. It would be really a good idea if we did some research on those ecosystems to see what could be harmed,” Stribling said.

Nelson agree, saying, “We are changing natural systems for our own convenience. We should be acting more like stewards and not doing things just because we can.”

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