Pulling plug means new day for creek


September 22, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

RISING SUN -- The native people called this creek "Octoraro," which has been translated as "muddy river" or "rushing waters."

Depending on the season and the rains, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.

But there's one thing the Octoraro is no matter what time of the year: blocked.

A stone and timber dam 125 feet long, probably built ages ago to power a mill, plugs the creek about five miles above where it joins the Susquehanna River in Cecil County.

Creek water can empty into the river, but migratory fish can't swim to the Octoraro's upper reaches to spawn.

"It serves no purpose anymore. It's an obstacle to fish and diversity," says Anders Alfelt, executive director of the Octoraro Watershed Association, as he stands at water's edge. "There's been a lot of work done in Pennsylvania tributaries to restore habitat with the idea of, `If you build it, they're supposed to come.' But right now, they can't get there."

On Oct. 7, an earth-moving machine will gingerly inch out onto the dam and begin removing the blockage, stone by stone, just as a heart surgeon might clear an artery.

Never before has a Maryland dam been removed without first building an expensive and time-consuming coffer dam to create a dry area for workers and to hold back damaging sediment.

What engineers will be doing is similar to a doctor doing open-heart surgery without using a heart-lung machine.

If the Octoraro project follows the script written after the removal of other dams, hickory shad, blueback herring and American eel will return to their traditional sites, and maybe American shad and other species, too.

Helping the critters will benefit two-legged ones, as well.

"Removing the dam will open 20 miles of the creek to paddling and fishing opportunities," says Alfelt. "You'll see - long-term - habitat upstream increasing, with more waterfowl and more macro-invertebrates and whatever else comes along with the fish."

The creek starts as two branches in Pennsylvania that connect at the Octoraro Reservoir in Pennsylvania. The outflow is the creek that crosses the state line and tumbles downstream through Cecil County.

In 1983, Pennsylvania lawmakers designated their 36.5-mile stretch of the Octoraro part of the state's Scenic Rivers Program.

Maryland has included the Octoraro in its Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Area. Planners envision hiking and biking trails that will link to the existing trail network and stretch from Rising Sun to Havre de Grace.

The Chester Water Authority of Pennsylvania owns the dam and a 40-foot buffer along each bank in the stream valley. It's not hard to imagine the transformation of that green ribbon into a haven for anglers and paddlers stopping for lunch and a break.

That this dam removal is happening at all is a testament to a long list of state and federal agencies and environmental groups that decided to find a new way to address an old problem.

In the late 1960s, the Department of Natural Resources began cataloging blockages as part of its Chesapeake Bay region evaluation. The dam at Octoraro was on the list and gradually moved up as the larger rivers were cleared.

"Before, we were dealing in miles," says DNR fisheries biologist Nancy Butowski. "Now, we're going back and getting the rest of the streams."

But the state agency found getting a permit from other regulatory bodies to try the new-fangled dam removal process as daunting as sitting through an entire Orioles game.

"It was hard," Butowski says of negotiations with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in to lend a technical hand, and groups such as the Octoraro Watershed Association and American Rivers educated the public and rallied support.

"They didn't want to hear how easy [permitting] is in Pennsylvania," says David Sutherland, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "This is Maryland. It's a different process."

Design experts outlined how they would monitor the amount and type of sediment flowing downstream and evaluate it against previous studies.

Instead of an instant - and dramatic - dam removal by explosives, DNR promised it would gradually remove the dam and allow the water to dribble out over the course of two days.

In the end, the Maryland Department of the Environment agreed to issue a permit as part of a demonstration project. The cost is not expected to exceed $65,000.

"We were trying to contain costs because we want to do more of this," explains Sutherland. "We need to pick up the pace."

Three other projects are on the drawing boards:

Dam removal to open up six miles of Scotchman's Creek, a tributary of the Bohemia River in Cecil County, just west of the Route 213 bridge.

Knocking down the 10-foot high PPG dam south of Cumberland, which impedes the Potomac River main stem and the passage of the American eel.

Removing the dam at Raven Rock Run in Hagerstown and restoring the stream, which is a tributary of Antietam Creek.

At Octoraro, the work won't stop once the dam is gone.

Rocks that were part of the dam will be used to buttress the northern creek bank and repair erosion. State workers and volunteers will plant grass and native trees and shrubs this fall and again in the spring. Monitoring of stream quality will continue for three years.

Once the dam is gone, the next blockage is about 19 miles upstream. That one, the dam for the reservoir, isn't likely to come down.

"But it's a likely site for fish passages," says Sutherland, smiling at the thought. "It's not too early to start talking about it."


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