- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

NEWPORT, Va. (AP) — Mountain Lake is drying up as water drains from a hole in its bottom, scientists say.
The lake, located in Giles County about 40 miles west of Roanoke, has shrunk from 47 acres to about 25 acres since 1998.
Mountain Lake is the main attraction for the Mountain Lake Hotel resort. The lake and hotel served as backdrops for the 1987 movie "Dirty Dancing" — a distinction that still brings tourists.
In one scene of the movie, actors Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze frolic waist-deep in the lake's shallow south end. If they tried that today, the dancers would get dirty, but not wet.
Scientists say the lake, which is more than 100 feet deep when it is full, will refill eventually. Once or twice a century, scientists have learned, the half-mile-long lake shrinks to a small, wet hole but refills years later because of conditions caused by earthquakes.
"It turns out that sometimes there is a lake there and sometimes there is not," said Jon C. Cawley, a Roanoke College biologist and geologist.
Mountain Lake is one of only two natural lakes in Virginia. The other is its polar opposite, swampy Lake Drummond in southeastern Virginia. Mountain Lake lies 3,860 feet above sea level, near the summit of Salt Pond Mountain. It is the only natural lake of any size in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
"It is unique," said Bruce C. Parker, a Virginia Tech aquatic ecologist who has studied Mountain Lake since the 1970s. "Every year I've studied it, I've learned something new about it that was different from any other lake I've known."
Water flows into the lake from springs and small streams. Some water leaves through evaporation and, when the lake is full, by flowing over a natural spillway on the lake's north end.
But scientists say water mainly leaves in a unique way — through the hole in its bottom. The water enters a natural, subterranean pipeline and gushes out as a spring about a half-mile down the mountain.
So Mountain Lake is like a big bathtub, with water pouring in from the faucet and going out through the drain. Most of the time, these two flows maintain a rough equilibrium, and the lake stays full.
During dry spells, however, less water goes in the lake, and its level can drop. The last year the region received a normal rainfall, 1998, was also the last year the lake was full.
Studying Mountain Lake in the late 1990s, Mr. Cawley made another remarkable discovery: A fault, or fracture in underground rock, runs directly under the hole in the lake bed.
Earthquakes, most of them so small that no one feels them, frequently hit the region encompassing Mountain Lake and Blacksburg, 16 miles to the south. When an earthquake hits, rocks move along that fault. That movement pinches the natural pipeline beneath Mountain Lake, said Mr. Cawley and Mr. Parker.
That plugs the bathtub, so to speak. If the lake is low, it refills.
Meanwhile, the lake looks sad. A sea of soil lies between the lake's edge and a sandy beach created where the water once reached. The boathouse, at the lake's southeastern corner, stands about 100 yards from the water.
A recent visit found the beachside chairs sitting empty. A strolling couple remarked on how much the lake had fallen since an earlier trip.
For the hotel's staff, it's tough to watch their draw go dry.
"I have had some people say, 'It doesn't bother me.' Then I've had other people say, 'If I'd known the lake was that low, I'd have never come up here,'" said H.M. "Buzz" Scanland Jr., the hotel's manager.
Some people associated with the hotel have thought about plugging the hole in the lake. Mr. Cawley says that would be a mistake.
"It is like saying, 'I have Old Faithful in my back yard, and it's in the way of my tennis court, so I'm going to plug it.' But it's really not the same because there are other geysers.
"There is not another Mountain Lake. This place is a total one of a kind, in a bunch of different ways."


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