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Managing Healthy Lakes to Support Thriving Wildlife and Recreation

July 25, 2018 04:25 PM
By: Bryn Hanrahan, DCNR Communications Intern

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​Do you enjoy swimming, paddling, fishing, or just simply soaking in the beauty of Pennsylvania’s lakes during the summer?

There are many opportunities to get out and enjoy lakes across the state, especially in state parks and forests. State parks have 55 primary recreation lakes, and state forests are home to 99 natural and man-made lakes.

With all of these lakes of different sizes and features, DCNR, with help from our partners, is constantly working to manage each one properly.

DCNR Lake Maintenance, Improvement Efforts

DCNR focuses on maintaining lakes for recreation, water quality, and habitat by working year-round on projects that keep these bodies of water healthy and safe. These efforts help ensure that aquatic habitats can flourish during times of high levels of recreation, like the summer season.

DCNR does not always work alone on these often massive, complex projects, sometimes partnering with organizations like the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts.

Here are some of the recent and current projects taking place on state park and forest lakes and streams that are making a real impact on habitat, recreation, and water quality.

Lake Dredging

One large-scale practice that DCNR implements is lake dredging. Over time, sediment from upstream and areas around the lake is deposited on the lake bed, which decreases the lake depth and often impedes recreation.

During lake dredging, large amounts of sediment are removed from the lake bottom, which is frequently accomplished by draining the lake completely. After dredging, the lake depth is deeper and allows for improved recreational opportunities. A lake dredging project was recently completed at Little Buffalo State Park in Perry County.

DCNR Lake Depth Maps Help to Understand Sediment Levels

DCNR’s Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey has surveyed more than half of state park lakes using sonar to create bathymetric maps showing lake depth. Not only are these maps extremely helpful for recreation, they help DCNR understand pre- and post- dredging sediment levels, learn if there’s a problem with too much sediment entering the water too quickly, and understand the concentration for any herbicides applications.

To see if this map currently exists for your favorite state park lake, select the state park you’re interested in, and then select “Maps.”

Shoreline Stabilization

DCNR leads shoreline stabilization projects in conjunction with PFBC to create new habitats for fish and invertebrates to thrive. When the fish can feed and reproduce easily, they create improved conditions for birds of prey and other predators to feed.

For these projects, DCNR places items like root balls, rocks, or wood sills along the shoreline of a lake. Then, the material is either backfilled, or the bank is re-sloped.

Not only do these projects help the aquatic habitat directly by stabilizing the shoreline, they also decrease shoreline erosion, which can be dramatically increased by the regular use of nearby dirt and gravel roads or parking lots.

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This photo shows the final product of a shoreline habitat project at Prince Gallitzin State Park.

Providing Wildlife Habitat

DCNR works to create and maintain wildlife habitat throughout the state, which impacts lake health. The DCNR Bureau of Forestry’s new Aquatic Resource Management Plan (PDF) was created as a set of guidelines to help maintain forest rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds for stable living conditions of wildlife.

In this plan, DCNR focused on the habitat improvement of animals that directly impact the lake systems. Providing adequate habitats for animals that live around the lakes will benefit the overall quality of the wildlife and vegetation at the lakes.

Approximately 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need use lakes and ponds as their home. This includes 39 invertebrates, 19 bird species, and 10 fish species.

Habitat improvement involves the restoration of native vegetation to the areas around the lakes and the creation of devices like nesting boxes, baskets, and cribs that create physical habitats for the animals and fish.

Wildlife Habitat Improvements in Susquehannock State Forest

In Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County, a waterfowl habitat improvement project has been ongoing on small lakes and beaver dams. DCNR has been planting native arrow arum on the shore, which provides a great source of food and cover for waterfowl, such as wood ducks, mallards, and other birds.

Wood ducks are a popular gamebird commonly found in wooded areas along forest lakes. They need a lot of greenery for cover and to nest, so for additional habitat assistance, wood duck nesting boxes and mallard nesting baskets have been placed along a lake in the forest.

Beaver dams on nearby streams act as providers of pond and wetland habitat that positively benefit lakes by creating valuable diversity within the habitat. Turtles, amphibians, snakes, birds, and vegetation all benefit from the presence of beaver dams.

The planting of native arrow arum in Susquehannock State Forest provides beaver dams with materials that improve their habitats and facilitate the growth of the ecosystem. Although beaver dams are relatively temporary, even when abandoned, they are valuable for habitation of the other animals in the ecosystem.

Porcupine Cribs Supporting Fish Populations at Pymatuning State Park

As part of another habitat effort, Pymatuning State Park in Crawford County staff worked with volunteers on the construction of porcupine cribs. Despite the name, these cribs support fish populations; they get their name from appearing spiked like porcupine quills.

These installations help to build a natural fish and water ecosystem, reducing or eliminating the need to stock the lake. It all starts with the algae that will grow on the porcupine cribs. Macroinvertebrates, including insects and worms, feed off the algae. Smaller fish consume the macroinvertebrates, which serve as a food source for larger fish.

Learn more from this article about a recent Beltzville State Park effort.

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Suppressing Aquatic Invasive Species

Aquatic invasive species are a threat to recreation and habitat quality in lakes. These species can be plants, fish, turtles, mussels, and others negatively impacting the aquatic ecosystem by taking over and out-competing the native species.

Invasive plants are often introduced to the ecosystem through cross contamination from boats and other sources. Aquatic invasives spread incredibly fast, and can quickly become a huge threat to the ecosystem. This can limit recreational activities on lakes by killing fish or native vegetation, lowering biodiversity.

Efforts to Remove Hydrilla

One very prominent aquatic invasive in Pennsylvania is hydrilla -- a U.S. Federal Noxious Weed. Hydrilla can negatively affect recreational activities by becoming entangled in boat propellers, creating navigation difficulty for paddlers, and lower catch success for anglers.

To address the hydrilla problem, DCNR has implemented different tactics that involve education, outreach, and suppression of the invasive species.

At Pymatuning State Park, a large volume of hydrilla has been recorded in the past few years. DCNR has used aquatic herbicides in the lake to help eliminate the plant, but often the aquatic invasive will continue to spread when recreators are unaware that they can cause the spread, too.

To alleviate this, Pymatuning created a Launch Stewardship Program to educate park-goers about how they can help with the removal of aquatic invasives. Park rangers and interns conduct educational programs, check boats to make sure they’ve been properly cleaned, and provide boaters with tips on invasive removal.

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Before lake hydrilla treatment.

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After lake hydrilla treatment.

Improving and Monitoring Water Quality

Through sediment removal, added habitat, and frequent water quality studies and tests, DCNR strives to keep lakes clean so that visitors can enjoy them and the ecosystem can continue to grow in biodiversity.

DCNR frequently works with DEP on water quality assessments. For example, at Frances Slocum State Park in Luzerne County, DEP monitors algae concentrations, which helps alert the park when there is an imbalance in water quality and something may be wrong. Managers use the information to make decisions about treatments to address nutrients to help restore balance.

Water Quality Monitoring Buoys

At Laurel Lake at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Cumberland County, a project with nearby Dickinson College aims to raise awareness of water quality challenges with visitors and provide information critical to protecting Pennsylvania’s freshwater resources through the use of water quality monitoring buoys to collect data.

After three years, the effort has expanded to eight lakes across the state. Information from this project will be available for use by park managers and others to make lake management decisions that will aim to improve water quality management for intended uses.

Learn More and Get Involved

If you love Pennsylvania’s lakes and other water resources, there are several ways you can actively participate in keeping them clean and healthy:

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As July -- Lakes Appreciation Month -- comes to a close, remember that lakes are worth appreciating year-round. They’re not only a ton of fun, but a very important part of our ecosystem.

You can get involved by volunteering at your favorite state parks and state forests; contact them to find out how you can help.

You can also enjoy DCNR events at state park and forest lakes this summer, many of which are fun and educational. 

To learn more about DCNR’s water efforts, visit our water conservation web page

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