Dam owner set to perform good deed

December 08, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

You can't get there from here," the punch line to an old New England joke about asking for directions, could also apply to Maryland anglers attempting to find access to the water.

It is, however, a cruel joke: a state with thousands of miles of waterfront and fewer and fewer ways to get there.

Shoreline development and a bumper crop of "No Trespassing" signs have put the squeeze on folks who don't live on the water or have a boat or have friends who have boats.

At a meeting at Department of Natural Resources headquarters earlier this month, perch fishermen ticked off a number of traditional fishing spots that are no longer available to them. Security concerns at the Calvert Cliffs nuke plant and the LNG dock have closed some prime Chesapeake Bay hot spots (although, curiously no one seems to mind boats bobbing up and down next to the Bay Bridge supports).

Even a tiny stream - a jewel - near my home in Montgomery County that seemed hardly worth a second glance to developers will soon be walled in by McMansions.

So when a big company volunteers to unfurl the welcome mat on a prime piece of fishing real estate, the sun shines, the birds sing and the angling angels weep.

Exelon Energy Corp., owner of the Conowingo Dam and shoreline below it, wants to improve access at Fisherman's Park, the sliver of green just below the dam in Harford County that serves not only anglers, but birders and hikers, too.

But wait, as the TV announcer would say, there's more. The utility also is throwing in access improvements at the mouth of Octoraro Creek on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna River, just across from Fisherman's Park.

For three-quarters of a century, Conowingo Dam was a fishing magnet, with fishermen wading the waters below and others dangling lines off the catwalk above. During the spring shad run, the water was thick with fishermen practicing catch-and-release.

Then came 9/11 and homeland security. Exelon closed down the whole dam thing and enforced it with signs, fences and guards.

Since then, the power company gradually has given back fishing privileges, and even improved the parking lot and the boat launch area and added portable toilets. It seems many of Exelon's managers and employees are fishermen who felt the public's pain.

Now, says Exelon spokesman and avid fisherman Ted Caddell, it's time to take the next big step, if the feds say it's OK.

"Every time we'd loosen restrictions, we'd be asked about opening the catwalk again," Caddell said. "For security reasons, we can't do that. Believe me, it's a non-issue. But we said, `If we can't do that, what can we do?'"

What Exelon envisions in its nearly $1 million proposal are longer park hours, better access to the waters near the dam on both sides of the river and an easier go of it for handicapped anglers and birders.

On the Cecil County side, there's a chance to create trails and a parking area to provide access to Octoraro Creek, a traditional hickory shad spawning area that was, until recently, blocked by a stone-and-timber dam about five miles upstream.

State and federal agencies and citizens' groups worked to remove the dam in October, which opened 20 miles of the creek to fish and people.

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

Additional access will only improve what Birder's World magazine called "a true winter hot spot." From mid-October through mid-March, birders can watch dozens of eagles feeding on carp, channel cats and gizzard shad. The food supply also attracts thousands of gulls from as many as 15 species, some quite rare. Bird clubs from all over the region come to the area for field trips.

Caddell chuckled when asked why a utility would spend money on a non-money maker.

"Generations of people have fished there. You can find three generations fishing there at the same time. My father took me there. I go there. I took my son there," he said. "Many of our employees fish there. It is a treasure."

Exelon met with anglers earlier this month to get feedback on its proposal. Longtime users of the park and the area across the river suggested changes, which are being reviewed by the utility.

Caddell said Exelon will need approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and most likely will have to get homeland security officials to sign off on it, too.

"We don't know yet what permits will be needed," he said. "I don't believe there's any Corps of Engineers issues."

There's no timetable for construction. Caddell said the project would not disrupt shad season next spring and probably would be pegged to summer low-flow periods.

DNR officials, who hear complaints all the time about the lack of public shoreline, are supportive of Exelon's effort.

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