Water agreement raises concern for Potomac River fish

August 19, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC -- Environmental and political leaders in Montgomery County warned yesterday that a regional water agreement might be adequate for people but deadly for animals.

Standing in the dry bed of Muddy Branch creek, 100 yards from the Potomac River, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan called yesterday for a study to determine whether an 18-year-old pact among Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia protects wildlife.

"Is this environment for us and nothing else, or is it for the ecosystem, too?" Duncan said. "We have to look at the bigger picture than how much water is in the pipes."

The regional agreement sets the minimum acceptable flow in the Potomac at 100 million gallons a day. A huge reservoir in Garrett County is being tapped to maintain that level.

But Duncan said a 1981 study by the state Department of Natural Resources estimated that if the daily flow in the Potomac dropped to 300 million gallons, 80 percent of the young fish would die. The daily flow this week dropped to less than 200 million gallons, triggering the concerns.

"A lot of people don't come to the river. They don't know and appreciate it. But if they see pictures of thousands of dead fish, they'll care, and then they're going to get angry and say, `Who let this happen?' " Duncan said.

The Sierra Club, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also question whether a daily flow of 100 million gallons is adequate to sustain the fishery.

Duncan said governments in the region should use this year's near-record drought to study the Potomac and revise the management plan.

Republican Del. Jean B. Cryor of Montgomery County, whose bill to pay for a $700,000 Potomac study failed in the final moments of this year's legislative session, said she would try again.

Officials at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, which manages the pact, insist the region has reserves to get to the end of the year without rainfall.

But Duncan said tapping reserves these days -- without more conservation -- is lowering that margin of protection.

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