A spokesman for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works said yesterday that Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs will be closed to recreational fishermen aboard boats for an undetermined period beyond the scheduled opening this Sunday.
"Chances of getting a boat on the reservoir are absolutely nil by March 1," said James Kapplin, spokesman for the Department of Public Works.
The crux of the problem is the zebra mussel, a European strain of shellfish that has infested the Great Lakes during the past few years and since has been found in some rivers that are not connected directly to any of those lakes.
Among those rivers is the Susquehanna, in which a population has been found in the upper reaches. The Department of Natural Resources also is trying to determine whether there is a population of zebra mussels in the Chesapeake Bay.
Neither the DNR nor the Department of Public Works has been able to detect the presence of the mussels in any of the three reservoirs, but Kapplin said a decision has been made to take every precaution to avoid introduction of this shellfish.
The primary concern is that boats used to fish waters other than these three reservoirs may have been used in contaminated watersheds and could bring the mussels in on their bottoms.
Zebra mussels colonize rapidly and efficiently on such strata as filtering screens over intake pipes used in reservoirs. In some cases, Kapplin said, mussel colonies have reduced the efficiency of small municipal water supplies by 90 percent by clogging intakes.
Liberty, Prettyboy and Loch Raven reservoirs provide the primary water supply for 1.5 million people in the Baltimore area.
"We want to maintain all the recreational possibilities, as long as it is not a problem in terms of the water supply, which is the prime concern," Kapplin said. "There are some reservoirs that are closed to everybody, and we don't want to do that."
Fishermen who use the reservoirs are, for the most part, outfitted only for reservoir fishing, using jon boats with electric trolling motors and trailering their boats.
"I have put $3,000 into my rig this year alone," said Rick Vaughan, an ardent reservoir fisherman. "And I really can't use it anywhere but on the reservoirs. I can't take it onto the Susquehanna, the Potomac or the Chesapeake Bay. It isn't suited to it."
In recent years, however, larger boats suited to such places as the Potomac, Susquehanna and the Chesapeake, have been allowed on the reservoirs with the provision that they use only their electric trolling motors.
One solution may be to ban the larger boats and restrict the reservoirs to boats that have been inspected and certified free of mussel contamination. The argument against that may be that because the reservoirs are public water, if they are to be fished from boats, then all boats should be allowed.
The greater argument must be made, however, that the primary function of the reservoirs is to maintain a workable supply of water to the Baltimore area -- even if it means a delay in the fishing season or the rescheduling of some tournaments.
"That is always our problem in the recreation areas," Kapplin said. "Why can't we do this, why can't we do that. Trying to find a balance is the tricky thing."
Finding that balance, Kapplin said, will take an undetermined amount of time. The Department of Public Works will hire a consultant, presumably from the Great Lakes region, to assist with the project.
"Is there some way to get these boats on the reservoir?" Kapplin said. "Is there some way to guarantee that the individual boats are OK?
"These are the kinds of questions we are going to be asking."
Public Works staff was sent to a conference in Toronto late last week "to find out who the experts are in this, to find out who has learned quickly over the last couple of years about how to cope with the worst of it and how to prevent the infestation," Kapplin said.
The staff that went to Toronto had not returned yesterday, and Kapplin said no timetable has been set for reopening the reservoirs to boaters.
At Loch Raven Reservoir, which is not scheduled to open for fishermen aboard boats until April 3, the plan still is to allow only rental boats from the Fishing Center to use the reservoir until further notice.
L Shoreline fishing will be permitted at all three reservoirs.
"You take a reservoir fisherman, and he is dedicated to it," said Duke Nohe, a reservoir guide and former president of the Maryland B.A.S.S. Federation. "He keeps his boat on a trailer when he is not on the reservoir. The boat cannot be contaminated. There has to be a way to get these guys on the lake."