Bay model is now a 14-acre headache Glory days gone, site is for sale

January 23, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

MATAPEAKE -- Chesapeake Bay is half empty, the remaining water covered with scum. The eastern end of the Bay Bridge has been yanked from its pilings. Maryland, Virginia and the nation's capital are a sandy wasteland.

The scene of devastation is not some environmentalist's nightmare. It is the hulk of a walk-around, working model of the bay built nearly 20 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Out of sight in a dark, cavernous warehouse on Kent Island, the model has been unused and all but forgotten since 1984. That's when the corps pulled the plug on its ersatz estuary -- the centerpiece of a $30 million research effort to understand the bay and its problems.

Once touted as "the most significant environmental tool on the East Coast," the model now seems like a white elephant. The federal government has declared it surplus property and intends to sell it.

Maryland, which sold the land to the Army for $10 so the model could be built, wants the warehouse torn down and the property returned to the state.

"We just want the land back, free and clear, with nothing on it," said Dave Humphrey, spokesman for the state's Department of General Services. "Here they are, trying to turn a profit on land the state gave to them."

The federal government is seeking "fair market value" for its nearly 60 acres on the waterfront, but officials won't disclose a figure. If Maryland fails to make a satisfactory offer, the General Services Administration will auction the model and its surrounding land, said Joseph Crenshaw, a real estate specialist with the federal agency.

There may not be any other bidders because the market for commercial or industrial development on Kent Island is "pretty dead, said Barry Waterman, office manager for Coldwell Banker Waterman Realty in nearby Stevensville.

"What do you do with 14 acres under one roof?" he asked, noting that the costs of demolishing the structure would be steep.

It's an ignominious end for what was once the biggest and most sophisticated working mockup of a waterway ever built.

First authorized by Congress in 1965, the model was portrayed by politicians, Army engineers and scientists as a key to preserving the health of the bay.

The bay and its tributaries sprawl over nearly nine acres inside a windowless warehouse roomy enough to hold eight or nine football fields. Nearly 200 miles long in reality, the bay in the model stretches a quarter mile from the Susquehanna River to Virginia's Cape Henry.

But the builders had to cut some corners in scaling down the bay. They distorted the depth, for instance, because the Chesapeake is so shallow that much of it would have looked like nothing more than a damp spot on the concrete if reproduced to exact scale. They anchored 700,000 little metal strips in the bottom to adjust the water's flow so it could approximate real conditions.

A day's tides ebbed and flowed within 15 minutes, causing the water level to rise and fall a quarter-inch. The surface of the 450,000-gallon model rippled with artificially induced currents as fresh or salted water was pumped into the bay and its tributaries at 21 different points.

Engineers and scientists simulated "storms" to study potential flooding problems, and they cranked up the model's powerful pumps to help in an actual search for bodies in 1978 after the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga sank.

But while the model was supposed to provide insight into the bay's problems, it was plagued by problems of its own.

Chunks of shredded newspaper used as insulation fell from the ceiling, creating miniature tidal waves that played havoc with efforts to measure minute variations of the water level. The insulation was removed, but the metal roof corroded and begin to leak. Despite repeated repairs, the roof is peppered with holes and the bay remains half filled with rusty water.

The basin was carved from concrete slabs that buckled and heaved, apparently due to a bad batch of cement. Only a few years after the model was up and running, it had to be drained to fix its shifting bottom.

After only six years of operation, the model was shut down for good in 1984. A. E. "Ted" Robinson, who supervised building and running it for the Baltimore district of the corps, said the project was abandoned only because it ran out of money.

Scientists differ over how useful it was.

"It added somewhat to our understanding of the way the bay circulates, mixes and functions," said Dr. L. Eugene Cronin, now retired, who was then head of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. "But it was pretty artificial. They sort of forced it to imitate the data we had."

"We were handicapped by the fact it was down quite a bit for repairs," recalled Dr. William J. Hargis, former director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

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