BLOOMINGTON -- At the base of the massive dam that backs the North Branch of the Potomac River into 1,000-acre Jennings-Randolph Reservoir, an outdoor laboratory a half acre in size may lead to the accelerated rebirth of 35 miles of waterway that had been virtually dead for 100 years.
That a waterway may be cleansed and reborn is not unusual -- but the manner in which the North Branch above this Garrett County town is being repopulated with brown trout is. In fact, the men who run the project say that it is unique in the United States and perhaps the world.
This business of rebirth began a decade ago with the completion the Bloomington Dam, an Army Corps of Engineers project authorized for purposes of flood control, flow augmentation, water quality improvement and recreation.
Yet until a few years ago, the North Branch from Bloomington west remained largely an aquatic wasteland.
Now, biologists expect the 27-plus miles of river above the reservoir can be reclaimed and predict the eight miles of the North Branch below the dam will become a wild trout fishery that could pump $1 million a year into the local economy and draw fishermen from around the world.
It is a possibility that would have been against all odds in the days while coal was king in the watershed of the upper North Branch for the better part of a century, when no one much cared that coal exposed to oxygen and rainwater would produce sulfuric acid that, in sufficient quantity, could destroy almost anything -- including the rivers and all that lived in them.
Since the 1970s, federal laws have required that mining land be reclaimed and left as close to its natural state as possible. But the damage to the North Branch had been immense.
In a roundabout way, this foraging of the land and fouling of the waters is what led Michael Dean, then a young biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, to the spillway at the foot of Bloomington Dam and what now is leading the upper North Branch back among the living.
"This river has been dead for 100 years or so," said Dean, who since 1984 has been part of the DNR team working on the river. "But since they built this dam, we have been able to closely study and learn to control water quality and, to an extent, control water temperature and water flow through the river below the dam."
In effect, Dean said, with the cooperation of the Corps of Engineers, the DNR has been able to create a new river from the old water above the dam.
In the stilling basin at the head of this new river, Dean and the DNR have created a research-and-development facility to rear brown trout in net pens year-round.
Three years ago, Dean started out with two net pens and raised 22,000 brown trout to catchable size. Now there are 18 net pens that hold 110,000 trout -- browns, rainbows and a small population of cutthroats, which never have been raised in Maryland.
Traditionally, Maryland has raised rainbow trout in other state hatcheries, where concrete pens and pumps and filters have enabled fisheries staff to produce hundreds of thousands of fish for the state's annual stocking program. But traditionally, the rainbows stocked in the state were not expected to hold over through the summer or to provide sport for much more than 90 days starting at the end of each March.
"The reason we wanted brown trout is that they are a hardier fish [than brook trout or rainbows], will hold over through extreme weather better and are harder for anglers to catch," said Dean. "They aren't likely to grab at cheese and the things that your normal rainbow will hit in a put-and-take situation."
But brown trout, Dean said, also are temperamental and skittish -- qualities that make them a challenge for fishermen -- and harder to rear because of more frequent problems with disease.
But in and around the net pens, the browns seem to thrive for several reasons, Dean said.
* A system of solar-powered feeders spins food out to the trout hourly and allows the fish to feed more often on smaller amounts and achieve a better growth rate.
* The depth of the stilling basin is unusual, ranging from 40 feet at the raceway wall to 26 feet under the pens.
* Each of the pens covers 300 square feet, and the nets are 10 feet deep.
* At low flow, the dam passes 200 cubic feet of water per second, and the water temperature is basically constant between 11 and 15 degrees Celsius.
* The water below the dam never freezes.
* And a multi-access port system in the dam allows the mixing of waters from the reservoir so that Dean's browns receive the best water quality possible.
The system of five ports, located in a tower facility separated from the restraining wall of the dam, allows the engineers to provide the proper balance of acidity and alkalinity (pH level) and the most beneficial temperature for the rearing station.