Candus Thomson: Letting it flow will help Patapsco

August 29, 2010|By Candus Thomson | Baltimore Sun reporter

The Patapsco River doesn't get a lot of love.

Pronounced Pa-taps-i-co by many locals and sometimes used as a punch line to an urban joke, the waterway winds about 50 miles from its headwaters to the Chesapeake Bay.

It's not a Blue Ribbon trout stream, like the Gunpowder, nor does it enjoy "Wild and Scenic" status like the Youghiogheny in Western Maryland. And it's not the Potomac -- nicknamed America's River by conservation groups.

But it provided the juice to power 19th-century textile and grain mills. Baltimore wouldn't have a harbor without it, and the Patapsco provides a liquid backbone to a state park bearing its name. The river is a reliable fishing hole in spring and on a hot summer day, it provides a cooling refuge.

And here's the best part. The Patapsco could be better.

Little by little, those who believe in the river and see its promise are removing the obstacles -- literally -- that block progress.

Sometime this fall, Simkins Dam just outside Ellicott City will tumble, clearing more than eight miles of river and improving water quality and habitat for fish, eels and other species. A freely flowing river will mean higher oxygen levels and fewer thermal spikes in the summer.

"The water will run chocolate brown for about seven days, and after that, it will clear," said Serena McClain of American Rivers, one of the partners in the project. "Within a year, you won't even know [the dam] was there."

Jim Thompson, dam removal expert for the Department of Natural Resources, said most of what will wash downstream will be "sand and gravel, the good kind of sediment that's supposed to be in the stream, not mud and silt, which cover submerged aquatic vegetation. It may make sand bars a little larger for a while, and then everything will return to normal."

The same thing happened last year, when river restoration efforts targeted Union Dam upstream.

"This is a chance to see what the systematic removal of these structures will do for river quality," McClain said.

Removing both dams will cost $4 million, money provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Patapsco project was among 50 chosen by NOAA from a stack of 814 coastal restoration proposals across the country under the federal economic stimulus program.

At $1.5 million, Union Dam was the cheaper project because Tropical Storm Agnes did part of the removal, breaching the concrete structure in 1972. Simpkins has been a tougher nut because of questions concerning the impact of releasing sediment, estimated to be 110,000 cubic yards.

Thompson said that biologists gathered two years of data on downstream habitat, at a cost of $350,000, and will collect three years' worth of data in the aftermath of the removal, a $500,000 expense, to document the benefits and changes.

The information will be used to plan other dam projects.

A crew will gouge a notch out of one end of the 10-foot-tall structure to allow the partial release of water and sediment and then work backward. The process is expected to take just a few weeks. Afterward, restoration plans call for grading and planting.

Giving American eels more access to the river will improve the range of freshwater mussels, which filter large quantities of water. In their larval stage, mussels cling to the gills of eels as they swim upstream.

Thompson hopes to capture eels below Bloede Dam, the last blockage before the river empties into the harbor, introduce them to mussel larvae and release them above the dam.

Eventually -- say, three to five years from now -- the state would like to remove Bloede, too, leaving just Daniels as an impediment. Thompson would like to augment the fish ladder with an eel ladder.

"If you could filter the Patapsco, imagine how good that would be for the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay," Thompson said.

Also this fall, DNR will bypass White Hall Dam above Loch Raven Reservoir, which blocks Little Falls as it flows toward Gunpowder Falls.

The $264,000 project will reduce thermal spikes that affect the wild brown trout population below the dam and open up 46 square miles of watershed upstream toward the Pennsylvania line.

Yellow perch

The watermen had their turn -- now it's time for recreational anglers to hear a State of the Yellow Perch address from the Fisheries Service.

Leaders of fishing and conservation groups want to discuss the use of hoop nets by watermen, boundary lines for nets and the status of yellow perch in specific waterways that might not have seen a population increase after enactment of tougher commercial regulations.

The session, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at DNR headquarters in Annapolis, will include a brief overview of the health of the stock and a give-and-take between anglers and bureaucrats.

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