Well I’ll be Dammed: The Highs and Lows of Controlling Water Levels on Northwood Lake

It’s hard to believe spring has come when the temperature refuses to rise above freezing. Early Tuesday morning, despite the melting ice ringing Northwood Lake, there was skim ice forming on the large hole 50 feet from shore. Massive cracks formed on the surface, while drops of water fall from icicles advancing up the shore. The lake largely remains frozen; its fish swimming slowly in the deep, waiting for the moment when the sun will shine more clearly overhead. When the water opens up, the summer residents will return in stride. The loons fishing along our coast will return after molting into their tattooed black and white backs and with their flashing red eyes, seek out the ponds and lakes they nested on in years past. The bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) will soar once more over the open blue, their keen eyes scanning for their finned quarry.

However, before this can happen, the lake water will have to return to normal. Despite not having a day job for the past few months, one of the benefits of having a lot of down time is that you can take the time to learn about the features of the landscape of a new area. While living on the shores of Northwood Lake in Northwood, NH, I’ve learned a lot about the features that humans find appealing about this natural lake.

Features of Northwood Lake

The lake itself is quite impressive at over 600 acres with an average depth of 12 feet and a maximum depth of 24 feet. It is considered to be a mesolithic lake meaning it has a gravely bottom with some plant growth in the shallower sections. As April looms and plants start to grow, the native and invasive plants will begin their ascent towards to the sun once more. Since the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Protection (NHDEP) and the Northwood Lake Watershed Association (NLWA) have been working to prevent the spread of variable-leaf milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum) by inspecting boats at the public boat launch near Route 4 and by applying milfoil-specific herbicides to help eliminate these noxious water plants. By promoting native plants and wildlife, it provides better habitat and diverse prey options for the lake’s gamefish and other native species.

The popular fishing and boating spot boasts healthy populations of warm water species like largemouth (Micropterus salmoides) and smallmouth bass (M. dolomieui), brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus), perch and other panfish, as well as chain pickerel (Esox niger). The shores of the lake are populated by camps and single-family homes and tend to be occupied by summer residents more than year round residents. It’s a breeding ground for common loons (Gavia immer) with the NWLA using one on the logo for their organization. The lake drains into the Little Suncook River which is regarded by the organization, American Whitewater, as a Class III/IV run which can be difficult to access, especially when it is running high. The best times to try the Little Suncook are in the spring, after heavy rains, and when the fall drawdown occurs.

Melting ice on Northwood Lake in Northwood, NH in March 2019

In the coming weeks, those around the lake will begin to notice the slow advance of ice onto the exposed shoreline and lake bed as the spring thaw continues. As the day time temperatures regularly rise above freezing, the melting ice will start to expose the lake water and eventually by the middle of April, we should be completely ice free. During this time, as the ice is advancing, it has the potential of pushing objects like the many wooden and aluminium docks on shore away from their foundations, and potentially knocking them over or crushing them under the phalanx of frozen water. However, the ingenuity of human hands knows no bounds especially when it comes to the use of water for pleasure, industry, and other pursuits of the human imagination.

Drawdowns and Dams

Throughout New Hampshire, strategically placed dams and waterways restrict the passage of water into rivers and streams from ponds and lakes via seasonal drawdowns. A drawdown is when water is removed from a reservoir or other body of water so as to reduce the normal water height to a minimum water height. From what I’ve been able to determine, one of the ways this can occur is by blocking water from exiting a dam and pumping the excess over the side.

An example of this can be seen on YouTube. In 2010, user coweeman posted a video of the process at Oswego Lake showing pumps and hoses pulling out several million gallons of water and dropping it down the 24 foot dam to the creek below. After conducting some online research, I located a flier produced by the NHDEP that described that the purpose of these drawdowns occur for five main reasons;

  • Erosion control
  • Aquatic weed control
  • Reduction of ice damage
  • Managing water flow and capacity
  • Assisting with hydropower needs

On October 27th, 2018, Northwood Lake’s drawdown began with the lowering of lake levels by six feet. A six foot drop in lake levels means that the docks pictured in the feature image that were underwater are now high and dry. As the ice melts and is pushed on shore, it won’t harm the docks because its now lower than where the docks would normally be located (it also helps to remove the docks in the winter months just in case). The lower water levels also assist with killing the variable-leaf milfoil since the sediment where the plants grow dries out and freezes.

Perhaps the most important aspect of drawing down the lakes has to do with the time of year. Much the same way the ice in a drink dilutes the contents and raises the water up, as the snow and ice melts, it adds to the volume of water in the lake. If the lake were at normal levels, this would cause some pretty severe flooding. Therefore, by drawing the water level down, it potentially eliminates the chance of flooding by making it harder for the water to reach vulnerable structures and start to erode the shoreline.

What’s most amazing to me is that in a few months, the water rise once more and the lake will look completely different. There will be bass using the docks for cover, while loons and their chicks will sail around the safety of weedy coves and backwaters. East of the camp, the Boy Scout reservation up lake will teem with activity as the summer season gets underway, and hundreds of people will descend from Concord and Manchester and elsewhere to get a piece of the lake summer dream. A beaming sun reflecting off of blue water, a fish on the hook while having a beer and barbeque with the family. Sounds like the American Dream, doesn’t it?

Downsides in the Age of Climate Change

While I’ll have to wait for my farmer’s tan a little while longer, I wanted to take a moment to marvel at the amazing effects this policy has wrought. I’ll admit that I’m skeptical of shoreline development as while it certainly bumps up property values and can do a lot to promote a community’s bottom line, I often worry about the environmental effects of building along these shores. Having worked on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the relics from hurricanes past are commonplace, littered throughout the salt marshes on Bogue Sound and occasionally washing up beach side as well. The awareness one has to have of the impact of development on the shore is necessary to understand the constant change that is happening day by day, year by year. As developers locked up beaches and built their high rises closer to the water’s edge, they risked their towering monstrosities tumbling from their sandy crests and plummeting into the sea below.

Erosion exposed on primary dune in Beaufort, NC in August 2017

Meanwhile, back at home in NH, the Department of Environmental Protection seems eager to prevent that from happening and while they acknowledged the downsides to drawdowns in their flier, they continue to promote the use of them while noting that even they can’t take everything into account. The Mother’s Day flood of 2006 that struck the New England region and inundated the Merrimack River (the main watershed of the eastern side of Northwood) is an example of the potential damages that will become more commonplace as the planet warms. So what are we to do?

What To Do? Here’s What We Can Do!

While it seems to be a dream of many to live by the water, we might want to spend a little more time considering if constantly building more homes and businesses next to the water is such a good idea. I think when it comes to sea level rise, it’s a pretty reasonable argument that having a cottage literally on the dunes a la Henry Beston in The Outermost House isn’t the best option. Nor is continuing to build developments literally next to the ocean to the point where you have to build a seawall to prevent your coastline from washing away or legislating that even talking about climate change is a bad idea (cough, cough, North Carolina legislature).

We need action and it might be time to start taking a hard look at what we think we want and what we need to do as a collective to make sure that we can continue to survive and thrive as a species on this planet. We need to recognize that wringing our hands and denying the reality of the world might be convienient for those of us in the first world, but for those of our species in the parts of the world where its harder to grow food, locate fresh sources of water, secure appropriate shelter, maintain cohesive communities, and live in a manner than seems fit to their sensibilities and cultural norms, but not ours, needs to be recognized.

While I like to think of myself as environmentally aware, I’ve spent most of my life in ignorance that was partially instilled within the values of the culture I live in and partially my own reinforcement of those values and ideas. While I could assume that I live in a society where awareness of environmental issues is considered to be paramount, sobering truths about the places I’ve considered home (the poisoning of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers by the Ashland Super Fund site with heavy metals and mercury comes to mind), I’ve realized that simply knowing about an issue isn’t enough. Action is needed and demanded.

Fortunately, other concerned citizens have done the same and today waterways that were polluted have become much cleaner than they once were through actions of the citizenry and other concerned organizations. In Lynne Cherry’s book, A River Ran Wild: An Environmental History, she notes how the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution seemed to doom the health of the Nashua river, until a body of concerned citizens compelled by scientific research, grassroots activism, and the disgust brought on by having to live next to such a disgraced waterway (that would occasionally catch fire) brought the necessary changes to help improve the health of the river and promote the kind of changes needed to help the environmental well being of the watershed.

As long as we, the environmentally concerned citizens of the United States and the world at large, are dedicated to reducing the impacts of climate change on all and to help create a better future for humankind, we have hope. The younger generation gets it. Keep fighting and we will realize a better world regardless of whether you want to act or not.

I stand with Greta. Do you?

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