Residents out for an early-morning stroll around Lake Barton in Burke Centre yesterday were in for a rude awakening.

The lake was gone.

All 11 acres of it. Drained like a bathtub.

In its place was a desolate mud flat on which rested two exposed beaver dams.

"This is just sad," mourned Eve Herold, 42, as she watched a family of ducks trudge through the thick muck to get a few bread crumbs. Herold, who recently moved onto Lakeside Oak Lane--or, as she put it, "Lakeside ha-ha Oak Lane"--precisely because of its water view, said Barton "is the focal point of the community. This was a beautiful lake. Now it's just mud. I don't know anyone who would want to look out over this. . . . They completely denuded the lake."

They would be Fairfax County public works employees, who decided on Wednesday, in conjunction with state officials, to lower a few of the county's artificial lakes in anticipation of torrential downpours from Hurricane Floyd.

That afternoon, they opened the floodgates on Barton's 25-foot-tall dam.

So far, so good.

At the height of the storm Thursday afternoon, rainwater was filling the lake as fast as lake water was draining out, according to John Wesley White, director of the county's Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. By the time Floyd left the area that night, White decided it was too windy and dangerous to send employees back to shut the gates.

"A decision was made, for better or worse, not to send crews out in the night," White said. "It was just too unsafe to do that. It's really unfortunate for the sake of the homeowners. But I think it was properly motivated."

When crews returned to Lake Barton on Friday morning to close the gates, there was some water left, two small pools about five feet deep, White said. By evening, even that was largely gone, and under yesterday's bright sun, sections of the mud were beginning to dry and crack.

"When I got home, I looked out and saw that the lake had basically vanished," said Herold, adding that she could hear catfish flapping around in the low water. "We were just flabbergasted."

There were no reports of problems at the other lakes that were lowered.

At Barton Lake, where resident Marty Murdock saw "turtles as big as laundry baskets," some neighbors said yesterday they understood the logic behind opening the floodgates, but many were upset.

Craig Musick, an official for the Burke Centre Conservancy, said the homeowners group was not consulted beforehand. "I can tell you unequivocally that we never recommended it," he said. "If we had been asked, our position probably would have been to take the lake down no more than about three-quarters and then stop, so that we could be safe and protect the habitat for wildlife."

But conservancy executive director Sharon Goodrich said: "The county attempted to do its best in bad weather. If the dam had gone over and there had been flooding, people would have been quite upset."

County-owned Lake Barton is, or was, in the middle of the 5,800-home community, a popular spot for strolling, biking and fishing. Geese, ducks and heron were often spotted, along with deer and opossums.

"The ecosystem that was there yesterday has been destroyed for the most part," Herold said, fuming.

Even as many along the East Coast were still bailing out their basements yesterday in Floyd's aftermath, Burke Centre residents looked out over their dry lake bed, where a sign stuck out of the mud reading "Caution--Deep Water," and demanded their lake back.

Officials said it will take some time to refill the lake, which drains into Pohick Creek and eventually into the Potomac River.

"It won't be a matter of days, it will be weeks," White said. Exactly how long depends on how much rain falls, he said. "The natural flow of the stream will eventually fill it. If we get more rain, it will fill faster."

That news didn't mollify Herold. "The only solution they've put together is to walk away," she said, "and that's not acceptable."

Peg Futrell, who was attracted to Burke Centre by the lake's beauty, said yesterday that she's glad she's not selling her place right now. "If I were looking for a home and I looked out and saw a mud flat like this, I definitely wouldn't buy it," she said. "This whole community is a very beautiful habitat, and that isn't beautiful."

Staff writer Michael Leahy contributed to this report.