Who Would Dare Dump Snow in the Susquehana?

February 20, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--From my office window here I have a good view of the Susquehanna, only partially blocked by the new house on stilts George Pensell has built on the riverbank. On the bright sunny days we've enjoyed recently the water has been sparkling invitingly, and it makes me think about launching a boat.

February, when the weather cooperates, is a great time to be out on the water. One February a few years ago, I took an outboard skiff and went down to Battery Island, out where the Susquehanna Flats become the Chesapeake Bay. I ate a picnic lunch there. It was cold and very quiet, about three miles from town, and I remember the air smelled especially good. No one else was around.

No such picnics this February, though. The ice is gone from the middle of the river, but not from along the shores. The marinas and launching ramps are still solidly frozen in. Most of the boats left in the water by their optimistic owners will be all right, but a few won't; if a boat has a weakness, the ice will find it. Some local boats have sunk already, and others probably will when the ice melts.

A year ago, one fellow left a sailboat on an unprotected mooring in the river. It was there all winter. Every day I'd drive past and wonder when it would be frozen in, or ripped from the mooring by ice coming downriver, but that never happened.

It was an open winter, and the sailboat was still intact in the spring. The owner must be either prescient or lucky. This past winter he didn't leave the boat on the mooring; if he had, it wouldn't have survived.

Ice in the Susquehanna at Havre de Grace used to be the rule, not the exception. Plenty of local people remember crossing over to Perryville on foot across the ice.

It's also said that teen-agers, presumably on a dare, have occasionally driven cars across, using launching ramps as access points. I'm not sure I believe that, but I'm not sure I don't believe it, either.

In 1852, the river froze so hard that the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad laid tracks across the ice, and during a six-week period in January and February pulled more than 1,300 cars across the river by cable. It didn't lose one. The crossing was just upriver from where George Pensell's house now stands.

That was a famously hard winter, as was 1978, and as perhaps 1994 also will be. This winter has received some powerful press agentry; it's been ballyhooed as a Big One ever since the first snow fell shortly after New Year's. In fact, when I talk to some people here about the ordeal of the past few weeks, I'm amazed that I'm still alive.

Joe Kochenderfer, the president of the Havre de Grace City Council, is not an alarmist. I know this because he and I were assistant scoutmasters of Troop 967 together, and I never saw him lose his cool. Compared to managing a scout troop, managing a small city is a piece of cake.

But Joe did say that this winter's bad weather had strained the city's resources.

I had the chance to talk to Bob Lange, the city manager, about that. Bob has had the job for about three years, the first two of which had mild winters. Before that he worked in Florida, so he's entitled to be horrified by this winter's weather. But it turns out he isn't horrified at all, just busy.

Havre de Grace is a city of about 10,000 people, with a public-works department of about 30. It doesn't hire contractors to help with snow removal, preferring to do the work with its own people and equipment. Bob Lange figures that by the time the winter's over, snow removal will have cost the city a little over $30,000, or about $3 a head. More than half of that will be for overtime pay, most of the rest for sand and salt.

That's not a catastrophic expense, even for a city with a general-fund budget that's only $3 million or so. It puts a little more money into the pockets of some of the city's hard-working employees, whose salary levels aren't especially high, but it shouldn't result in any special belt-tightening in the next budget year.

If that $30,000 had to be paid for with one year's new taxes -- which it won't -- it would mean an increase of between 2 cents and 3 cents on the $1.55 (per $100) property-tax rate. Maybe this past winter wasn't the calamity we thought.

When I was talking with Bob, I remarked that when it comes to snow removal, Havre de Grace has one advantage. It can just take the stuff and dump it in the river. His eyes widened in horror. Dump it in the river? The city wouldn't dream of doing such a thing. What would the environmental authorities say?

My mistake.

Let it be clearly understood that Havre de Grace doesn't dump any of its snow in the Susquehanna River. Instead, the dump trucks leave it in huge mounds at the end of Congress Avenue and other streets that dead-end at the river.

Presumably, if it's still there next summer, it will be taken to special snow-disposal sites certified by the federal government.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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