Riding out the drought

Business: As water levels decline, so does the livelihood of those who operate Garrett County's rafting companies.

August 13, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

FRIENDSVILLE -- Roger Zbel battled deadly walls of whitewater in Tibet, but that did not prepare him for wrestling with what's left of the Upper Youghiogheny River.

Zbel, owner of Precision Rafting in Garrett County, has been stymied by the drought of 1999.

Business is off because Zbel can't guarantee that the Youghiogheny will look anything like the 8-by-10 color photos dotting the walls of his shop, showing helmeted customers shooting the rapids.

In fact, those days are getting harder and harder to remember for Zbel and the eight other Garrett County rafting companies licensed to run the Upper Yough, as it is called. Their rafting business on the famed whitewater river is down 50 percent to 60 percent.

"The drought is killing us," Zbel says, sitting in his shop surrounded by colorful -- but bone dry -- kayaks. "Every company has been struggling since mid-June."

Last Saturday, he had to return almost $4,000 to customers because of low water levels.

Zbel is a respected figure in whitewater circles.

He was a member of the kayak expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society that attempted last fall to run Tibet's Zangbo River, one of the last great stretches of virgin whitewater. The trek ended in tragedy when one paddler was dragged under the glacial water near where the river slices between two 24,000-foot mountains.

In addition to running his company, Zbel teaches whitewater guiding at Garrett Community College and routinely wins the big paddling races in the region.

He was drawn to the area in the early 1980s by the Yough and Deep Creek Lake. The two form the backbone of a vacation industry that Garrett County is marketing as "adventure sports."

But the only adventure challenging Zbel these days is trying to gauge whether he should cancel weekend reservations or advise customers from as far away as New York to make the trip to Western Maryland with the hope that the water will run white.

The picture is slightly better about 90 miles east in Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

Rafting companies have abandoned the Shenandoah, where rocks jut out and rafters spend more time "river hiking" than floating.

"If we didn't have the Potomac, we'd have been out of business a month ago," says Eric Neilson, owner of River Tours. "The Shenandoah is the lowest I've seen in 25 years."

Zbel's and the eight other rafting companies licensed to run the Upper Yough rely on releases from the hydroelectric dam at the western end of Deep Creek Lake to create whitewater.

A permit issued by the state in 1994 to GPU Generation Inc., the owner of the dam, dictates how much water can be released and when.

This year, Zbel says, it has been too little, too late.

The permit stipulates that the whitewater industry can have three-hour releases on Mondays and Fridays and the first Saturday of every month -- as long as the water level in Deep Creek is sufficient.

Five of 10 releases scheduled last month were canceled because of the drought.

Matthew Pajerowski, who oversees water rights for the Maryland Department of the Environment, says the Deep Creek Lake permit attempts to balance the needs of waterfront homeowners, fishermen, the whitewater companies and GPU.

"In a drought year, certain releases are going to suffer," he says. "You can't shift the impact to another user, and you can't make any more water than we've got."

The only releases guaranteed are the two-hour drawdowns called "temperature enhancements," to prevent the trout downstream from overheating and dying.

Deep Creek Lake dropped 13 inches last month, with slightly more than one inch of that attributable to the five whitewater releases, says Steven Taylor, a kayaker and NASA scientist who with Zbel has been lobbying the state and GPU for more whitewater.

The lake's water level typically decreases one foot each month of the summer, says Taylor, "so we're adding 1 inch, two if we're getting all 10 of our releases. How is that critical?" Taylor asks.

But Tom Teitt, an environmental scientist for GPU, says low levels in the lake have hurt his company, too. "The power station has been virtually useless all summer," he says.

GPU is selling the dam to Sithe Maryland Holdings LLC; the deal is expected to close next month.

Sithe has applied for a permit identical to the one held by GPU. The state will decide whether a new public hearing is necessary.

Teitt says the hearing process is expensive, and utility representatives are meeting with the whitewater companies to attempt to reach a compromise.

"To give them everything they're asking for, we would have to operate it as a recreational plant and not a power station," he says. "But if we could do something for the [rafters] and be a good neighbor, that's our goal."

Zbel says his earning season is almost gone. He fears the region will lose its whitewater identity with vacationers if his rafts and kayaks remain high and dry.

"Financially, it's a burden, but psychologically and mentally, I'm stressed out by the whole thing," he says. "I don't think I'm overreacting. This is my livelihood."

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