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Friday, December 21, 2012

Low water levels felt around lake

Whether it's the cooler weather or the lack of boating access, few are braving the low waters of Smith Mountain Lake.

Capt. Rick Ellett of Sea Tow, a company whose services include providing towing and transportation services to stranded boaters, said calls for assistance have been flat.

SML's water level this month is hovering around 4 1/2 feet below full pond, a situation that has created a host of difficulties for many around the lake.

According to Sgt. Bryan Young of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, some areas of the lake, such as those around Linville Creek and Bay Roc Marina, have experienced a heightened depletion of water.

"Obviously, when you get up into the headwaters, the creeks where the Blackwater comes into the Roanoke, they get really shallow, really quickly," said Randy Stow of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council. "You can have deep water in one home, and in the other, people have trouble getting their boats out," he said.

Even Coast Guard Auxiliary District Commander Tom Merriman admitted to having difficulties accessing his boat. Merriman, who lives off Virginia616 in Moneta, said the water there is in a state of constant fluctuation.

"[The water level] almost varies by the day," said Merriman. "It's up one day and down the other day."

The low waters have presented challenges to area emergency personnel, as well.

The formation of islands and shoals where there were none previously is a big concern at night, according to Al Busch of Smith Mountain Lake Volunteer Marine Fire/Rescue.

The squad's ability to access emergency equipment also has been affected.

Volunteers had to extend the chains of one fireboat that was suspended above the surface by 4 feet, Busch said. Another boat had to be completely taken out of the water and placed onto a floating dock. Busch said that during emergency responses, personnel are unable to access certain docks without using a ladder.

"It could be hairy," Busch said. "This winter if we don't get moisture or if this spring is dry, then we could really get in trouble."

Constantly changing lake topography is a hazard that boaters need to recognize while on the water.

"Not just shoals but rocks that are not normally marked with a shoal marker," said Merriman.

And for those who wish to brave the low waters? Stow said maps are a good resource for those unfamiliar with the lake's terrain.

"I would certainly recommend they stay in the middle of the cove unless you have a lot of local knowledge or you have a depth finder," said Merriman.

"The slower you're going, the less likely you'll be caught in a situation you didn't anticipate," he added.

"Most of the lake is very deep, ... but you still have to pay attention," said Stow.