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'Kettle' lakes: Pennsylvania's jewels of the Ice Age

Retreating glaciers left cold, sparkly lakes, but human activity endangers them

Monday, February 28, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Glacial lakes are Pennsylvania's oldest, best-kept secret.

 
  Of Western Pennsylvania's glacial lakes, Conneaut may be the most developed. This image is of Conneaut Bay Resort, built in the 1980s. (Post-Gazette)

Scattered through the northwestern corner of the state like pearls from a broken necklace, the seven iridescent lakes dating to the last Ice Age are rare, valuable, unique treasures.

Even though millions of people use the lakes for recreation, few know much about those geologically important, biologically diverse resources. Fewer still know of the human threats that endanger the future of the 13,000-year-old lakes.

Erie resident Frank Duma, who has fished Lake Pleasant for 60 of his 77 years and was out on the ice last week, can talk at length about the big fish he's caught there, but had no idea the lake was created by a prehistoric ice cube bigger than Three Rivers Stadium.

And glacial ice was the furthest thing from Doreen Gustomski's mind as she walked her dog, Bailey, through the quaint Lakeside Resorts area on the west side of Edinboro Lake.

"This gets crazy in the summer; out of control," said Gustomski, 35, gazing at the quiet pup-tents of ice fishermen on the lake's frozen surface. "It's a resort. Who knew it was a glacial lake?"



Pennsylvania has a wealth of water, but its only naturally occurring lakes are rare commodities.

Of the more than 2,500 water bodies bearing the name "lake," there are only 50 natural, glacial lakes, with the vast majority of those in the Pocono Mountains in the northeastern end of the state.

The rest of what passes for "lakes" are dammed streams and rivers, or dug-out reservoirs or impoundments, created for flood control, power generation, irrigation or recreation.

Pennsylvania's glacial lakes are all "kettle" lakes. They were formed in the late Pleistocene period when gigantic blocks of ice broke free from a retreating continental ice sheet, in this case the Wisconsin Glacier, and were left behind in the rock debris and gravel moraine. As the ice blocks melted they filled the depressions, or "kettles," in which they sat, creating the lakes.

"For people around here, the thought of a glacier sweeping in and bulldozing their yards 13,000 years ago is incomprehensible," said Milt Ostrofsky, a lake scientist and professor of biology at Allegheny College in Meadville. "But we live in an area that was glaciated down to present-day Mercer, and these lakes are natural features of our landscape. For that reason alone they should be valued more highly."

 
  More on glacial lakes:

In the mud of Lake Pleasant, a mammoth find

   
 

The glacial beginnings of the seven lakes in the northwest corner of the state -- Canadohta, Conneaut, Edinboro, LeBoeuf, Pleasant, Sandy and Sugar -- provide the chemical underpinnings for incredible biodiversity. As water filters through the glacial sediments around the lakes, calcium and limestone are dissolved, creating a source of alkaline groundwater that recharges lake and wetlands, making them able to support a diverse array of plants and fish.

But these ancient watery relics are fragile. All contain plant and fish species of special concern, both threatened and endangered. And risks to their biodiversity and ecological health abound, Ostrofsky said.

Many of the lakes are inundated with nutrients -- mainly phosphorous and nitrogen -- from untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and lawn and golf course fertilizers. The nutrient overload causes algae blooms and thick plant growth that depletes the oxygen in the water and harms sensitive plant and fish species. In an effort to control the plant growth, herbicides have been widely used in some of the lakes.

The lakes also are subject to airborne deposition of toxic chemicals like mercury from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest; invasive species like the zebra mussel or the purple loosestrife, which can crowd out native wetland plants; groundwater disruptions from gravel mining and oil drilling; over-development; and human overuse.

"We need to raise awareness and protections," said Charles Bier, zoologist and director of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy's Natural Heritage Program. "Each lake has its own personality. All are different in terms of human use, size, watershed location and threats. We need to develop more and better information on all the lakes."

The Conservancy is sponsoring a one-day public symposium April 1 at Edinboro University, to review what is known and needs to be known about the lakes and threats to their survival.

It won't be easy. While all of the lakes were spawned by the same ice sheet, human interaction has turned them in very different directions.


Lake Pleasant

The "crown jewel" is Lake Pleasant, an Ice Age relic that more than lives up to its name. Just 12 miles from Lake Erie in the rolling farmland of eastern Erie County, the 64-acre lake has only a handful of lakeside homes and is at the very top of its watershed -- a good thing for limiting pollution. Also helping to maintain water quality is a ban on boat motors.

Lake Pleasant's 40-foot depth and spring feeds make it one of the coolest lakes around. As such it is one of the few to support an abundant trout population, as well as northern pike, bass, perch and blue-gill. The lake, ringed by high-quality wetlands and emergent marshes, and its shoreline also contain almost two dozen plants and four species of fish that are endangered or threatened in Pennsylvania.

"For me the lake is like a time tunnel," said Jim Bissell, a botanist and curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History who did much of the rare plant inventory on Lake Pleasant and the other kettle lakes. He said Ohio's glacial lakes have lost the rare plant species that are in Pennsylvania, because of sewage and agricultural pollutants.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has targeted the lake and surrounding land for special protection. Late last year, it announced the purchase of a 13.7-acre tract known as the Fellowship of the Cross Campground that borders the western shore. The purchase brings the conservancy's holdings around the lake to 262 acres, and there are plans to establish a field station for further study of the lake and public education.


Conneaut Lake

Conneaut Lake, in western Crawford County, is the largest glacial lake in the state at 934 acres, and probably the best known and most developed. Where Lake Pleasant is ringed by wetlands, Conneaut is ringed by development -- cottages, homes, condominiums, motels, restaurants, marinas, an amusement park and golf courses, miniature and full-sized.

The wetlands surrounding Conneaut, which means "place of lingering snow" in Iroquois, have been dredged and filled to provide lakefront property and channels for boats, which are abundant during the summer. A recent aerial photograph taken during the summer counted more than 1,400 boats on the lake, and a recent survey found overcrowding a concern.

"Summer is like a carnival at Conneaut. The campgrounds, the restaurants and bars and activities are all humming," Ostrofsky said. "You would think that the borough would realize that protecting the resource and keeping it attractive to visitors was important, but we haven't seen that. Sometimes you don't know what you've got til it's gone."

Problems on the 68-foot deep lake include pollution from sewage and agriculture and the resultant abundant aquatic plant growth. Lakeside property owners have used herbicides and tried harvesting the seaweedy tendrils.

"The chemicals kill the weeds but they don't solve the problem," Ostrofsky said. "The long-term solution will be to reduce the amount of nutrients finding their way into the water."


Canadohta

The lake called Canadohta, which could be an Indian word for "lake of many cottages," has recently shown improved water quality despite development that has stacked vacation homes six lots deep along much of the shoreline.

The 168-acre lake is cleaner than it was 20 years ago because all of the cottages have had to abandon ineffective individual septic systems and hook up to a sewer system and treatment plant.

"It's a real success story," Bissell said. "The lake is crystal clear now, and filled with all sorts of endangered and threatened species. Vasey's pondweed, a previously threatened species, was so thick on my last visit there we had trouble canoeing through it."


Lake LeBoeuf

Seventy-nine-acre Lake LeBoeuf, in central Erie County, is probably best known as the starting point for 21-year-old Major George Washington's canoe trip down French Creek in December 1753 after a fact-finding visit with the French at nearby Fort LeBoeuf. The facts he gathered showed that the French were intent on staying, and led to the French and Indian War.

These days, Lake LeBoeuf has a reputation as a pretty fair panfish lake, although its muddy, relatively shallow bottom is often churned up by motorboats.


Edinboro Lake

Located low in its watershed and with the town of the same name snuggled up against it, 247-acre Edinboro Lake has serious pollution problems caused by agricultural runoff and a sewage treatment plant that has had trouble handling increased storm flows. In addition, high-quality wetlands northeast of the lake containing a number of state sensitive plant species are threatened by a gravel mining proposal.

"That's the Pennsylvania lake I have the most concern for," Bissell said.

"It's a great lake with a wonderful shoreline. There are emergent marsh systems, fens and deep water aquatic bed plant communities. But if we lose the plants, we could lose the fish. It's touch and go whether the lake will survive."


Sugar Lake

With a watershed dominated by the Erie National Wildlife Refuge, and lots of stumpy, high quality wetlands at its upstream end, 99-acre Sugar Lake has few problems.

The biggest could be finding it, tucked into a low hilled valley in southern Crawford County where Amish buggies and lumber trucks share the winding roads. "I know people who drove by on Routes 27 and 123 and never knew the lake was here," said Dave Fowler, 56, one of six ice fisherman on the lake last week.

Cottages, mainly owned by folks from the Pittsburgh area, and full-time residences are scattered widely around the lake, which has a laid-back feel, even in summer. Only 16 feet at its deepest spot, Sugar is shallower than any of the other glacial lakes and does show some turbidity when outboards, limited to six horsepower, stir it up.


Sandy Lake

Sandy Lake, in Mercer County 75 miles north of Pittsburgh, is the southernmost of the glacial lakes, but the hardest to get onto. That's because the 146-acre lake, bordered on its south side by the town of Stoneboro and known for its muskie fishing, is privately owned. There's a beach and boat launch that charge a fee, and water skiing is a popular summer activity.

"Sandy Lake contains a massive amount of glacial sand and is fed by great springs," Bissell said. "Bog bluegrass, a globally rare species, can be found along the southwest shore."

But changes are in the offing. The longtime owner, Homer Widel, died in December, and the family wants to sell the property. The Sandy Creek Conservancy is trying to raise the $2.1 million asking price.

"We'll see what happens. There's a lot of concern locally that it could be purchased by a housing developer and the public could be shut out," said Fran Bires, director of the McKeever Environmental Learning Center, located between the lake and Maurice K. Goddard State Park.

"It would be a loss if it doesn't go to the conservancy and be used for public education, recreation and conservation."


The Glacial Lakes Symposium on Saturday, April 1, at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, is open to the public. Admission is $30 for WPC members, $40 for non-members and $15 for students. Advance registration is suggested. For more information contact Brian Gallagher, WPC, at (412) 288-5404 or by e-mail at bgallagher@paconserve.org



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