A Quiet Weekend At Dam This Time


April 11, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

"A rainbow! Look there, a rainbow!"

That was my daughter's excited reaction on seeing the powerful gushes of the Susquehanna River forced through flood gates at the Conowingo Dam last weekend. The mist sprayed up above the traffic on the dam's bridge, as the sunlight played on the vaporous sheen and, indeed, formed a half-rainbow for the enjoyment of visitors.

It was one of the biggest visitor weekends for the Philadelphia Electric Co. power plant, with traffic backups and parking lot gridlock created by the curious who were drawn to the wonder of the forceful river and the massive hydroelectric dam built to contain it.

The cresting river flow recalled the Susquehanna's angry surge during Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, when river towns were evacuated and the community held a collective breath to see whether the dam would hold the rampaging current.

Even opening all 53 floodgates that June did not appease the Agnes threat, and the company issued a warning that the stability of the dam was in jeopardy. But the 110-foot high structure did hold along that one-mile width of Susquehanna, even though there was heavy flooding of buildings along the banks.

This time, however, it was a sunny spectator event, with carefree visitors exulting in the insistent current that exploded in a series of arcs through the open spill-gates.

There was no fear, only a healthy awe of the power of the Susquehanna, whose muddy brown waves lapped up perilously close to the top of the highway across the dam.

For the young couple necking in the parking lot, the small children excitedly running along the grassy banks below the dam, the families with video cameras recording their faces in front of the gushing torrents at the dam, this was a welcome

spring excursion. Only the brisk, chill wind thwarted the picnic plans of some visitors.

"It was supposed to crest this morning, but it hasn't changed much," offered a security guard named Bob as he strolled along the river. "They had 24 gates open, maybe more by now." In his ranger-type hat, he was the immediate source of information for the curious that strode along the grassy riverbanks.

Birds that normally congregate in the silt islands downstream had taken flight from the flood, leaving the scene to the human intruders.

The spectacle was a reminder of the fluctuating fortunes of nature. Two years ago, the water level was at dangerous lows; this spring, it reached near-record highs.

The Susquehanna officially peaked at 6 a.m. April 3, with a measured flow of 445,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) flowing through 26 open gates. Had another gate been opened, the river would have washed through Port Deposit downstream, which escaped unscathed this year. Early last week, the flow still exceeded 400,000 cfs.

The Agnes storm flow peaked at 1 million cfs. In 1978, Tropical Storm Eloise pushed through over 500,000 cfs. But they were both short-lived storms with massive rainfall. This year's sustained high flow had been building up since March 26, the combination of a delayed snowmelt and heavy spring rains.

The power plant did not profit from the river's abundance, because the spill-gate flows created a heavy back pressure on the turbines and reduced their efficiency, noted Michael Wood of Philadelphia Electric.

The dam, built in 1928, has 11 turbines that generate a maximum 512,000 kilowatts of power. Last year, the company began a $32 million modernization of the facility, which will improve its efficiency and production by nearly 10 percent when completed.

The dam center's lobby has displays that explains the history of the power plant and the riverine ecology. Tours are conducted from here seven days a week. About 36,000 people come here each year, plus uncounted numbers of fishermen.

The narrow two-lane dam bridge was once the main connector across the Susquehanna for Harford and Cecil counties. Now, the larger Tydings and Hatem bridges downstream carry far heavier traffic.

So the lines of cars that coursed northward through Dublin along U.S. 1 last weekend were mostly in search of the river itself, not a rapid way to cross it.

For the very young, it afforded multiple mysteries to be explained. When does the river stop? How deep does it go down? Is the rainbow still there at night? Why can't we see the fish?

My child's special wish was that we could see the flashing red light and hear the warning siren that signals flooding of the riverbanks. Though the rushing, white-capped river seemed scary to her from up close, that was no reason not to wish for more water if it would trigger the magical horn and lights.

From the mystique of nature's splendors to the excitement of human efforts to control her, the afternoon journey to Conowingo had been a refreshing delight. Spring was here at last. Man and river, held captive by the prolonged winter, again found their vernal spirits unleashed.

Michael K. Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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