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Reservoirs opened to help combat drought

July 15, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The Potomac River rose about six inches this week - but, no, it wasn't due to rain.

Instead, the water came from reservoirs farther upstream.

The Army Corps of Engineers opened the reservoirs last Sunday in response to drought-depleted water reserves in the Washington area. The water passed Cumberland, Md., on Monday and Hancock on Wednesday.

It is expected to complete its six-day journey today, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The water, which is traveling at about 800 cubic feet per second, came from the Jennings Randolph and Savage Reservoirs in Garrett County, according to Gary Fisher, a surface water specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

The reservoirs are controlled by a dam near Bloomington, Md., Fisher said.

The water release was requested by the Interstate Commission for the Potomac River Basin, which monitors daily water usage and river flow in the Washington metropolitan region.

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The water table near Washington fell about 2.4 inches in the first two weeks of July, dropping to record-low levels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Federal officials began constructing a network of reservoirs after a severe drought in the 1960s, Fisher said.

Doug Garman, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Baltimore, said it is the first time the reservoirs have been tapped since the project was completed in 1982.

The extra water release caused the river to rise by about a foot, Fisher said.

Its effect lessens the farther the water travels, Fisher said. The water level was about 9 inches higher at Cumberland and a little more than 8 inches higher at Hancock, he said.

The reason for the release was to augment the Washington area's water supply. But Fisher said the extra water could help communities farther upstream, as well.

Hagerstown and other water systems draw from the Potomac. If the intakes are not submerged all the way, it could be harder to draw water.

"They may be sucking air," he said.

Recreational water users also may notice a difference. Fisher said rafters and kayakers often complain of dangerous exposures to rock when the river level falls too low.

"Even a small change in water level is significant," he said.

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