The General Assembly has decided to roll the dice again on the future of the 130-year-old dam that keeps Lake Roland from turning central Baltimore into a lake.
By appropriating less than one-third of the $3.5 million state share of the money required to rebuild the dam, the legislators are hoping that the old stone structure will hold for still another year. The state capital budget has been approved by both houses of the legislature, and small differences are now being worked out in conference committee.
If they're wrong, according to engineering studies of a worst-case scenario, and a huge storm should dump tons of water on Baltimore, the dam could give way, launching an 8-foot wall of water down the Jones Falls Valley toward the harbor. The wave would shrink to 4 feet by the time it reached downtown, the studies say.
Further delay in rebuilding the dam isn't the choice Baltimore County's public works chief Gene Neff would make. "It's risky, very risky," Neff said.
The dam is in the county, and the lake is in the city's Robert E. Lee Park. The two jurisdictions have agreed to split $3.5 million of the cost of rebuilding the dam. The state was to provide the other $3.5 million last year, but postponed it until this year.
Del. Howard Pete Rawlings, D-City, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said financial constraints kept the General Assembly from approving more than $1 million for the project.
"There's a realization on our part that a catastrophe could possibly occur. We hope that a $1 million commitment up front by the state shows our concern," Rawlings said. The legislators said they hope the $1 million is enough to get work started, but local officials say they cannot bid the project without having the full amount.
The city is advertising for bids now for a preliminary $600,000 job to repair the old gatehouse and make operable an old valve under the gatehouse, said Gennady Schwartz, chief engineer for the city Department of Recreation and Parks.
Once that's complete next February, contractors expect to be able to lower the lake enough to permit work to begin on the $7 million dam-strengthening project. The idea is to build a new reinforced concrete dam on top of the current one on the downstream side.
Original plans were for the main construction project to be advertised for bids in March 1992, but that can't happen if all the money isn't there, Schwartz said.
If the legislature doesn't approve the rest of the funds until next year, the money won't become available until July 1, 1992, delaying the project even further, Neff said.
The old dam, built as the Civil War began, was used to create a drinking water reservoir for Baltimore. That function ceased about 1915, and the park and lake have been used for recreation since. The park is 6/10ths of a mile north of the city line, just east of Falls Road.
In June 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes severely damaged the dam, and officials worried for a time during that storm that the dam might give way. Side walls were again damaged during Hurricane David in September 1979. Repairs have been made, however, and the city spent $8 million in 1986 to install stone and concrete along the widened banks of the Jones Falls.