Muddy lake: nature pays

Published 10:23am Friday, July 8, 2011

The lake at camp has been muddy since campers arrived three weeks ago.

We’ve had some hard rains that could cause the lake to be muddy, but the mud has been with us before the storms as well as afterwards. I asked the camp director (Casey) if she knew the source of this sedimentation, and her only thought was that it could be a newly cleared pasture upstream. But that pasture is not cleared up to the stream’s edge, and
there is a silt fence installed on the streambank, so Casey and I were left speculating.

The minimum distance from the stream any earthmoving should be done is based upon the slope of the land and what sort of vegetation adjoins the stream. The steeper the slope, the wider the vegetated buffer needs to be. This particular new pasture is on level land, and the owners had left at least a 25-foot vegetated buffer, so it is our conclusion that the mud is coming from somewhere else.

This morning I got an idea as to the source of our mud problem. Do you remember a Conservation Corner last summer in which I mentioned that hundreds of acres were being clear cut on top of Pinnacle Mountain, directly above camp?

This morning I drove up to the top of the mountain and took a moment to look at the timbered site. The cutting stopped last fall, and the site does not look all that bad if you don’t know what was there before. I got out to walk around below the road and found a clue as to where our mud is coming from.

Rainwater falling at the top of the ridge has created a path down through the clearcut, flowing through 100-plus acres of steep raw dirt and rocks into our stream. Camp is a mile or more downstream. Sediment entering a stream can end up in the Atlantic Ocean as long as there is enough stream velocity to carry the sediment.

Sediment from that clearcut gets stopped at our little lake. Every few years the lake needs to be dredged to clean out the accummulated sediment, at great expense. It does seem unfair that the cost of dredging the lake is borne by an innocent party rather than by the entity that caused the problem.

Unfortunately that’s the nature of pollution: the polluters make their money and someone else pays the price.

What interested me this morning is the fact that the cause of the sediment was not easily visible. Had I not wanted to know, and had I known nothing about the land and its terrain, including where the creek flows, I would never have been able to figure it out.

It’s easy enough to talk about the muddy lake at the dinner table, but it takes energy to get outside and see if there is anything that can be done to stop it.

The locals have stopped fussing about the clearcutting because it no longer looks ugly, but the pollution will go on for years to come. The small, eroded ravine at the top will get bigger and bigger each year until the water cuts down to rock. But none of this is within sight of the road: out of sight, out of mind.

I think about how much time and energy is spent “cleaning up” our county by removing old mobile homes and junk cars. Those could be called visual pollution, but those junk cars don’t kill fish or pollute the air.

As a society we are quick to deny what we can’t see. Few of us care enough to look below the surface; we’re pretty sure that we won’t like what we find. So let’s keep pretending that what we see is what is underneath, and leave it to our children to figure it out. Here’s a quote from Peter Coyote from June’s “Sun Magazine”: “Every generation is a life and death struggle between wisdom and ignorance, and there is no guarantee that wisdom is going to win.”

Ignorance is bliss. It can be deadly.

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