Vincent Ciaramitaro spends two to three days a week paddling at Patriot Lake in Shelby Farms. He plays boat ball, a variation of water polo, with the Memphis Whitewater club every Tuesday. He teaches new kayakers on the lake, and, sometimes, he enjoys paddling alone.
But over the past several months, he's noticed something disturbing.
"We can paddle our kayaks underneath the pier without ducking our heads," says Ciaramitaro. "When you can do that, it means the water level has dropped tremendously."
With no water system feeding the man-made lake and persistent drought-like conditions, park officials estimate the 60-acre lake has lost about three to five feet of water over the last several years. Since January, Shelby County is about 14 inches below normal rainfall levels.
"The lake is so low, it's really in a crisis," says Laura Adams, executive director of Shelby Farms Park Alliance. "You can paddle around the lake with a four-foot paddle and touch the bottom in several places."
Adams estimates the lake is now losing about an inch a day. The lake normally ranges from four feet in shallow places to 17 feet at its deepest.
The county is working on diverting a ditch near the Visitor's Center to direct rainwater into the lake. Currently, the ditch drains into the Wolf River.
"However, that only works if it rains," says Adams. "If we turned a pump on 24 hours a day, it could take a couple months to refill. That's the best short-term solution, but it's not very environmental."
There is a pumping system in place at Patriot Lake, but it hasn't been turned on in several years. Steve Satterfield, administrator of Shelby Farms, says there is no immediate plan to do so.
"We're concerned about the cost of powering that pump and the amount of water that we'd be pulling out of our drinking aquifers," says Satterfield.
Satterfield estimates it would take about 25 million gallons to refill Patriot Lake, which he says could cost $10,000 to $20,000. Jerry Anderson of the University of Memphis Groundwater Institute agrees that cost should be a concern but says Shelby Farms officials need not worry about the aquifer. "Our aquifer is big," says Anderson. "We pump 200 million gallons a day just to drink."
The Shelby Farms Park Alliance is currently looking into a hydrology study for Patriot Lake, as well as other lakes in the farms. The study would be part of the overall planning process for Shelby Farms.
"There's a larger issue here. When you're planning a major urban park in 2007, with climate change and everything else, should you be planning differently?" asks Adams.
In the meantime, Satterfield says the county will only consider pumping water from the aquifer as a last resort. "We're not going to let the lake go dry," says Satterfield. But right now, we don't know if we should spend all that money to fill it with a pump just to have Mother Nature change her mind and decide to rain."