Study targets river's debris

Legislator blames upstream utilities for storm overflows

Delegate seeks U.S. funds

August 15, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In the midst of Maryland's worst drought in 70 years, Del. C. Richard D'Amato is probably one of the few people worried about floods.

But D'Amato, who took the lead last spring in pushing the state and county to clean up debris carried downstream by Susquehanna River flooding to local beaches, is continuing in the dry season to push for federal help tackling the recurrent problem.

"We have no water now, but if we have a big tropical storm this fall that could change the situation dramatically," the District 30 Democrat said.

Congress has authorized a study of flooding on the river to come up with recommendations on better management and collection of waterborne debris that sometimes flows into the Chesapeake Bay region.

At D'Amato's urging, Maryland's U.S. senators requested that the study -- to be done by the Army Corps of Engineers -- be included in the Water Resources Development Act.

That legislation, given congressional approval last week, provides for the Corps to improve rivers, ports, harbors and other waterways.

D'Amato maintains that the utilities that operate dams along the 444-mile Susquehanna River and the commission that oversees the Susquehanna watershed have not done enough to remove debris from the waterways.

Logs and trash float south when the floodgates on dams along the Susquehanna River are opened to reduce dangerously high water levels.

"The Susquehanna River Basin Commission has been frankly quite timid about putting pressure on these utilities. They're not being as aggressive as they should be in getting the utilities to pony up the resources and admit there's more they could do," D'Amato said.

The Susquehanna flows through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and empties into the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace.

Paul O. Swartz, executive director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), said it's up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, not his agency, to regulate the utilities.

Swartz said the SRBC has pledged to start a volunteer cleanup program it is calling River Sweep to remove man-made debris from the Susquehanna watershed before it reaches the Chesapeake Bay.

D'Amato, who was elected to the General Assembly last year, began working on the problem when logs, tree stumps, tires and other detritus washed up in January and February on the beaches of a dozen Anne Arundel waterfront communities, including his own Bay Ridge neighborhood.

In addition to being unsightly, the debris is dangerous, D'Amato said, and keeps recreational boaters and watermen out of the water.

The state Department of Natural Resources made $30,000 available to the county in April to clean up waterfront neighborhoods that were particularly hard hit.

About the same time, D'Amato said that the River Basin Commission asked the utilities to study how they might collect debris before it washes downstream. D'Amato called the report unsatisfactory and without any new solutions.

He said the utilities use a 20-year-old skimmer boat to collect debris.

"Essentially, the utilities came back and said, `We're doing the best we can,' " D'Amato said. "We don't believe that's the case. There are far more effective debris removal technologies in the country that could be tailored to the Susquehanna."

He said that in some rivers in the West, old Navy ships have been outfitted with cranes to collect debris.

D'Amato said he hopes the Corps of Engineers can come up with recommendations for improved debris removal by March.

The next step would be a more in-depth feasibility study on putting the recommendations into action.

"We'd love to see new technologies in place before the next winter [2001]," D'Amato said.

In the meantime, the legislator said he is working with state environment officials to have debris cleanup procedures ready if more waste lands on Maryland shores this winter.

We've had a year," D'Amato said. "Come January and February, people are going to say, `What have you done?' We think it's important to move this thing forward."

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