People used to view ponds and streams as convenient spots to dump old tires, refrigerators and the like. By and large, attitudes have changed, but you can still find plenty of trash in these bodies of water, as well as invisible nutrients from our yards and fields that drain into them, spawning noxious algae blooms.
So who’s in charge of protecting inland bodies of water from trash tossers and surplus grass fertilizer? In some cases, nobody is really sure.
Silver Lake, Lake Comegys and Lake Gerar in the Rehoboth area are a particularly vivid example of the challenges. They can be surrounded by multiple owners, and jurisdictions, all with different interests, rules and definitions. Sometimes, it’s not even clear who owns the waterways.
Steven Smailer, director of the Division of Water for the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, raised this point in a workshop last fall sponsored by the Save Our Lakes Alliance 3. The state does not own all waterways, he explained; it just has jurisdiction to the “ordinary high water mark.” The maps indicating where exactly this is are out of date, waterlines can change, and rules governing what precisely people can do with docks, retaining walls and bulkheads can be unclear, he pointed out.
On Silver Lake, some residents claim ownership well out into the water. “People have actually built out into the lake,” says Kevin Williams, director of public works for the city of Rehoboth Beach. “They say their property line extends into it. They put a retaining wall out, reclaim a portion of that lake and build a home on it.”
Lake Gerar is the simplest case, city arborist Liz Lingo notes, with Rehoboth Beach owning most of the surrounding land.
With Silver Lake things get much more complex, as it’s bordered by Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Sussex County. Lake Comegys, just to the south, is split between Sussex County and Dewey Beach. Private owners control lots along both of these.
“That was our frustration, because with three jurisdictions plus the state, nobody wanted to claim responsibility or even ownership,” reports Sallie Forman, founder and president of SOLA3. The group started in 2004 and has been advocating for these waters since then in the face of issues like a 2012 fish die-off in Silver Lake.
The biggest pollution concern, Forman says, is stormwater, with storm drains in the surrounding areas feeding into the lakes. Still, Silver Lake and Lake Comegys have not been tested consistently in the past, she says, and the alliance is working on a new volunteer program in partnership with the University of Delaware to more regularly monitor for nutrients, bacteria and other markers of water quality, such as dissolved oxygen levels.
Michelle Schmidt, director of conservation and watershed planning with the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, says that although her organization doesn’t manage the Rehoboth lakes, it sees similar issues of jurisdiction play out in other bodies of water. There are regulations for protecting waterways, but nontidal wetlands — the areas surrounding the water — can fall through the cracks.
With the disagreements over who is responsible for protecting what, “we really need to be better at our willingness to work together with the state, with the feds, with the local municipalities, with our private landowners … and that’s probably more difficult than getting some freshwater wetland regulations passed,” Schmidt reflects.
Steps are being taken to hammer out that cooperation, at least with respect to the Rehoboth lakes.
For starters, Rehoboth Beach recently prioritized a stormwater management plan, a step SOLA3 advocated. “We’ve been doing a lot of stormwater improvements in order to improve water quality” and also to reduce flooding, notes Williams, the city’s director of public works.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Williams calls it an “unbiased third party”) is working on a broader management plan for all concerned around the lakes. A draft of the plan, in its final stages as this issue goes to press, calls for steps dealing with invasive species such as bamboo and phragmites, cooperating on guidelines for land use around the edge of the water, more thorough water testing, and working together to standardize definitions and permitting.
Williams hopes the plan will provide “… a path forward to get the right people around the table to make those decisions.”