After three weeks of clearing and hauling trash from Claytor Lake, Debbie Seagle is tired.
“I have trees and trash and broken picnic tables and teeny tiny sticks completely covering my lakefront,” she said.
She’s had to muck and haul and burn load after load, mostly alone. And it’s been getting worse in recent years.
“Every spring, I say I’m selling, but I don’t really want to,” Seagle said. “I love it.”
It didn’t used to be this way. When Seagle bought her lakefront property and a cabin above it nearly two decades ago, she said there was less flooding and much less debris. But over the past five years, spring floods have come regularly and brought more trash with them, she said.
This spring brought a tremendous amount.
“It’s the worst it’s been in the 10 years I’ve been here,” said Chris Doss, who manages Claytor Lake State Park. “There’s been a lot of debris come down the lake, for sure.”
Aerial photos shared by the nonprofit Friends of Claytor Lake show a mass of debris moving into the 21-mile reservoir last month as heavy rains caused flooding across the New River and Roanoke valleys.
In some areas, logs, tires, barrels, various kinds of trash and even whole docks covered the waterway, blocking boat launches and choking coves. FOCL has been working to clear heavy traffic areas and to clean up the park’s public beach for its reopening this weekend, organization President Steve Rapp said.
The beach opened for the season on Friday under Gov. Ralph Northam’s phase two “Safer at Home” coronavirus prevention plan. That’s three weeks later than the normal Memorial Day opening, Doss said. Cabins, yurts and lodges reopened Thursday.
Park staff will limit beach occupancy to 50% of normal and will enforce social distancing measures across the park, Doss said. Events such as the annual summer festival have been canceled.
The unusual debris load further complicated park operations in an already exceptional year.
“It’s been another challenge on top of the challenges we’ve had with the pandemic,” Doss said.
Privately funded, FOCL spends about $190,000 a year on lake cleanup, running a barge and a five-man crew with donations from American Electric Power, Pulaski County, lake-related businesses and about 8% of lakefront residents, Rapp said.
Claytor Lake is a reservoir formed on the New River by the hydroelectric Claytor Dam, which is owned and operated by AEP. Much of the waterfront property is privately owned, and three miles of the shoreline is managed by the state park.
Cleanup is a slow process. Working 10-hour days, the crew pulls debris onto the barge until it’s full. Then they use an excavator to load it onto a dump truck that takes it an hour away to an AEP property where it’s unloaded. Then the truck goes back to the lake for more.
And that’s if everything runs smoothly. Often, it doesn’t. On a recent Thursday, the barge was parked in a private cove, where part of its crew was working to repair a hydraulic problem.
“The barge is very old. Our excavator is old. Our dump trucks are old,” Rapp said. “The problem we’re having now is they’re so old, we can’t get parts for them anymore. So we have to take them to a mechanic who can fabricate parts. And you can’t just do that overnight.”
The barge can’t go fast, either, and off-loading has to be planned, he said. That makes it hard to respond quickly to resident requests for debris pickup.
Still, they do make progress. Last year alone, the crew disposed of 3,645 tons of woody debris, 243 barrels, nine docks, one freezer, one large tractor tire, 55 tires with steel wheels and 239 bags of mixed trash, Rapp said.
FOCL hopes to raise $100,000 to buy a second, newer barge, Rapp said. That would allow them to put two crews on the lake each season to speed up the work.
For now, the one barge will continue it slow chug up and down the lake, working to remove the spring detritus and all the new debris that’s surely on the way.
Intermittent rain is forecast much of this week for the Roanoke and New River valleys with 1 to 3 inches of additional rain projected.