Ocmulgee fishing area closed after lake level drops 17 feet

hduncan@macon.comNovember 8, 2012 

The lake was disappearing. It was time to save the fish.

State fisheries workers at the Ocmulgee Public Fishing Area began electroshocking the bass and crappie there this week in an effort to remove them before they’re left flapping in the mud.

The lake, on the border between Pulaski and Bleckley counties, closed to the public Wednesday after leaking water for a long time. It’s unclear where the water is going. But the rate increased over the summer and reached an inch a day for the last few weeks, said John Biagi, chief of fisheries for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The lake, which the state opened in 2006 on land that is part of Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Area, has become a popular bass fishery that drew about 14,000 visitors last year. But it was last full in April 2011 and has dropped by 17 feet, causing boat ramps to be closed in August.

Biagi said the fish are being moved to other public fishing areas or to hatcheries where they can be held until the Ocmulgee lake is repaired. About 125 large mouth bass and 200 crappie were moved on Monday alone, he said.

His best guess is that the lake contained about 350 stocked bass, some of which weigh more than 12 pounds. The lake was most recently stocked two years ago and more fish are being raised now to go into the lake once it’s repaired.

“We’re hopeful can get repairs done in the next year and be able to open in spring 2014,” Biagi said.

He said he can’t estimate the repair cost until engineers examine the lake bed and determine the cause of the disappearing water.

“We have some bond funds for public fishing areas and hatcheries that we could use for an emergency repair,” Biagi said. “If it’s not enough, we’ll have to work to see if there is funding available. But it may not be.”

This is not the first leak for the relatively new lake, which cost $4.5 million to build. The lake had to be drained in 2005, before it had opened to fishing, when water began leaking through a fissure in the limestone beneath the earthen dam, Biagi said.

Grout was pumped into the crack, which formed in the area where the contractor that built the pond had dug a temporary pit during construction. That repair cost about $300,000, Biagi said.

“As far as we know right now, the leaks that have occurred this time are at a different part of the lake, near the fishing pier and boat ramp,” Biagi said. They may be related to the limestone underneath the lake, he said.

“Right now we don’t know where the water’s going,” he said, although two sinkholes have emerged in the lake bed as the lake drains. “This is turning out to be related to the geology of the lake and the drought situation making things worse.”

Both the current problem and the 2005 leak happened during droughts.

Limestone dissolves easily in the presence of water, leaving empty chambers for water to move through. But Biagi said he still doesn’t believe the site is geologically unsuitable for a lake.

Biagi said it’s possible that before the drought, the water table underground was high enough to help hold the water in the lake. When the water table drops, that pressure is reversed, leaving openings for water to drain between the rocks beneath.

The lake has dropped from 106 acres at full pool to 10 acres now, so state officials basically bowed to the inevitable and gave up on keeping it open.

Biagi said he expects engineers to figure out the cause of the water loss by the end of January.

“This is something very new and different and disturbing that we’re trying to get to the bottom of, so to speak,” Biagi said. “Certainly a lake this size, we wouldn’t anticipate having this kind of problem.”

The children’s fishing pond at the public fishing area remains unaffected by the problems at the main lake, and it could still be opened for special events, Biagi said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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