Going, going, gone?

Drought: To witness the dry weather's effects, residents need to look at what remains of Prettyboy watershed.

August 04, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

After his pals groaned at the umpteenth retelling of the one about the whopper catfish, Don Bruns turned toward the boat launch at Prettyboy Reservoir. He shared another memory.

"We used to come here and put the boat in there," Bruns said, pointing to a pier that is now a good 150 feet from the water's edge. The 75-year-old retiree gazed at the reservoir and softly added, "It's low. I don't know how else to say it."

For a vivid picture of Maryland's worst drought in decades -- an exceptionally long dry spell expected to bring mandatory water-use restrictions -- look no farther than northern Baltimore County's Prettyboy Reservoir. Built in the 1930s as a 20 billion-gallon rain barrel for greater Baltimore, Prettyboy now resembles a huge, slowly draining bathtub -- complete with an expanding ring of dirt where the water used to be.

And the broad, brown bands marking the shoreline are not the only bizarre vision in the Prettyboy watershed, which helps provide water to 1.8 million people in metropolitan Baltimore. Coves once shimmering with water are nothing more than flats of mud and weeds.

A sign reads "NO FISHING FROM THE BRIDGE." But the bridge that carries Kidds Schoolhouse Road over the reservoir now spans mud and only rivulets of water. The flats are littered with blue plastic bait tubs, reminders of the cove as a popular fishing hole.

Farther up Spook Hill Road is Frog Hollow Cove, a large blue area on the map. You'd never know that, looking at it now.

A band of teen-agers from Spring Grove, Pa., crossed the flats at Frog Hollow on their way back from a swim in the reservoir yesterday -- and found themselves knee-deep in the muck.

"Disgusting," said 16-year-old Danny Lentz.

Most regular visitors say the reservoir's water level is down at least 20 feet, as low as it has been since a major drought about 35 years ago. The rain from thunderstorms last weekend seemed to bring little help.

"Every time I come, it's down another 5 or 6 feet or so, and I'm here about every four days," said Randy Mitchum, an electrician from Dundalk, who was setting out for an evening of fishing. Mitchum helped guide a 16-foot bass boat into the water.

When Gov. Parris N. Glendening called last week for Marylanders to conserve water, he made his announcement at Liberty Reservoir, which, along with Prettyboy and Loch Raven reservoirs, supplies most public water customers in the Baltimore area.

State officials said that if water use were not curtailed and no rain fell, the three reservoirs would hold only a 35-day supply of water. Glendening ordered Baltimore yesterday to start tapping the Susquehanna River, even as his advisers urged him to ban all outdoor water uses statewide.

A city Public Works spokesman said yesterday that the three reservoirs are holding about 40 billion gallons of water -- or about 60 percent of their combined capacity.

The Liberty Reservoir feeds the city's water facility at Lake Ashburton. The dam at Prettyboy Reservoir is designed to hold water from the Gunpowder Falls, and regulate its release to the trout streams that run to Loch Raven Reservoir. From there, pipes carry the water to the city's water plant at Lake Montebello.

Pretttyboy Dam was completed in 1933 at a cost of $4.1 million. The watershed covers 80 square miles, with almost 50 miles of shoreline. The water is 120 feet deep near the dam and 50 to 70 feet in many other places -- or at least it was before the drought.

The bridge over the Prettyboy Dam reopened in June after being closed since late 1997 for renovations. The $2.9 million project included a road surface of concrete shaped to look like red brick.

"It's very nice. No graffiti," said Marilyn Smith, who strolled the bridge this week. Smith, a 77-year-old retired teacher, has lived near the dam for almost a half-century.

She says the water is low, but you can't yet see "the devil's backbone." The backbone, she explained, is a ridge beneath the water that used to mark a trail to Hoffmanville, an area to the north, where the Gunpowder Falls meets the reservoir.

"It's not as bad as we've seen it," Smith said, "but it's getting there, I'm sure."

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