Drought might force tapping into water in Montgomery County

As Potomac levels drop, officials consider drawing from Little Seneca Lake

July 14, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

GERMANTOWN -- Severe drought conditions might force water management officials in the Washington suburbs to tap a never-before-used supply: a 450-acre man-made lake in northwest Montgomery County.

But drawing down Little Seneca Lake, the centerpiece of Black Hill Regional Park, could kill thousands of fish, harm wildlife and create stinking mud flats near hundreds of waterfront homes, the County Council was told yesterday.

Little Seneca was built 20 years ago as a last-resort reservoir for the water system that serves Maryland's two most populous counties -- Montgomery and Prince George's -- and the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia.

The cost was shared by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), the Washington Aqueduct and the Fairfax County (Va.) Water Authority, with the understanding that water would be released to keep adequate flow in the region's primary water supply, the Potomac River.

The County Council was told by utility officials that the time might arrive this summer to draw water from the popular fishing and boating spot.

Erik Hagen, an engineer for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, said the level of the Potomac River dropped substantially last week.

Officials uncorked long-term relief four counties away, at the 13 billion-gallon Jennings Randolph Reservoir in Garrett County. But that water won't reach the intake pipes on the Potomac treatment plants until Friday.

While the level of the Potomac has stabilized momentarily, Hagen warned, "We could make a release from Little Seneca as early as [today] if we see a drop."

But county park and planning officials cautioned that tapping into the lake could temporarily alleviate one problem while creating an environmental disaster.

A three-day draw would leave behind 56 acres of mud, said Donald Cochran, county parks director.

And, he said, trout on Little Seneca Creek would be killed, "blown out by the pressure" of 200 cubic feet of water a second as it rushed downstream toward the Potomac.

County Council members were critical of water management officials who would release water from the lake before asking the public to voluntarily conserve water.

In the absence of conservation measures, what would happen if the water release from the two reservoirs proved to be inadequate, council president Isiah Leggett asked.

Michael Crean, the chief operations officer of WSSC, said the utility has substantial water supplies.

"There's no emergency situation," Crean said. "The Potomac River is low, yes. But the reservoirs are part of the system. We have a regional agreement to participate in the drawdown."

Council members have asked its staff to review the agreement and the mechanism that triggers the reservoir release.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who asked residents Monday to conserve water, said he has asked the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments to adopt a regional approach.

"When the WSSC has released water from one reservoir and is talking about releasing water from another, that is serious," he said. "We don't see any relief in sight."

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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