Outdoors with Forda Birds—By John Andreoni
A few weeks ago, Lake St. Marys’ was ice covered and the water was low. Both conditions had those who use the lake, especially fishermen, crying the blues. A combination of heavy ice, potentially heavy snow, and low water was a prescription for a catastrophic fish kill, and winter had just begun. Today, the water level is back to normal, depending on what normal is, we’ve had no snow, and, at the moment, the ice is gone. As far as the fishermen are concerned, all of this information is a moot point since many are currently catching big crappies in open water much earlier than expected and in numbers.
Before the first ice, official figures had the lake up to 17 inches below normal pool. It would be difficult to find a local lake rat who didn’t think the lake was down twice that much. Who is right? It really doesn’t make a lot of difference. If you stir up mud with your motor where you didn’t before, the water is low. If you hit a stump with your motor, the water is really low, and if you destroy your lower unit and are faced with a big repair bill, the water is really, really low. High and low water have been issues at our canal lake for as long as it has been around, and there’s no reason to think it will change.
So let’s talk about normal pool for a minute. Normal pool is a depth of water one would expect to see normally. Today at St. Marys, that depth is now achieved when water comes up to the cut in the West Bank Spillway. When water goes over the cut, the water is high; when it doesn’t, it’s low. Normal pool seldom exists. It’s just a point to measure from and was determined from the level of the old spillway plus four inches. The additional four inches came from trying to increase lake depth by adding wooden planks to the spillway top.
Good rains to start the year had a great effect on water depth since the ground was either frozen or completely saturated. Heavy rains last week caused the creeks to run and the lake begin to fill. Last Sunday, the lake was approximately 11 inches below normal, but by Wednesday it had come up seven inches. Water was soon at a level just three inches below “normal.” That triggered a response by the state requiring that water be released to maintain a depth nine inches below normal pool. On Thursday, one of the five-foot gates was opened and water gushed down Beaver Creek on the way to the Wabash. Right away, complaints started showing up. Crappie fishermen were concerned that lowing the water quickly would affect the unexpected, phenomenal crappie fishing. I’m sure a more definitive study would be required to argue that point, but casual observation tends to show that when water is released from the lake in large amounts, upstream fishing does turn off. At the same time, when Beaver Creek is flowing, fishing picks up considerably below the spillway. Regardless, why lower the water when it hasn’t reached normal pool? There is an explanation.
There is a group called the Lake Level Management Committee that was formed to establish a draw-down protocol after major flooding issues surfaced following the construction of the new spillway. This group of nine was made up of engineers and individuals living on the main lake and along Beaver Creek. They came up with a plan that was accepted and adopted by ODNR. This plan is currently in effect. A draw-down is to commence each October 1 to a level of nine inches below normal pool (bottom of the notch). The lake level will be monitored to keep the lake as close to this nine-inch level as possible. The intent is to cease the draw-down on or about March 15 of each year. The lake level will continue to be monitored throughout the year. The plan is simple and works, assuming the expected spring rains show up. Last year, that was not the case.
Regardless, water was released this week from the West Bank Spillway from one of the five-inch gates. According to official figures, the gate was open for roughly 36 hours and during that time, because of water still flowing into the lake, an additional 1.5 inches was still added. According to Dave Faler, Park Manager at St. Marys, assuming no water is entering the lake, totally opening one five-foot gate for three days will lower the water level one inch. Friday morning, my unofficial rain gauge showed an additional inch plus of precipitation. I assume the creeks will continue to run for a while. According to Faler, “I totally expect to see water going over the spillway in the next day or so.” And that’s why Mother Nature is Fickle. Low water issues one day and high water issues the next. Either way, it’s water over the dam.