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Potomac lower, slower than normal

August 09, 1999

By SCOTT BUTKI / Staff Writer

The Potomac River is slower and lower than normal because of the drought, creating problems for boaters, fishermen and fish, according to a river expert.

In Hancock, the Potomac is flowing at half its normal rate of 830 cubic feet per second, said Gary Fisher, a United States Geological Survey surface-water specialist.

And while the depth fluctuates, the river is as shallow as six inches in some spots, he said.

The problem is lack of rain. Rainfall in Washington County is 13.1 inches below normal over the last 12 months, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

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The result is the water is warmer than usual, which can hurt and kill fish, Fisher said.

Two local fishermen, however, say fishing is great because they are congregating in small, deeper pools of water.

The problem is getting a boat through the shallow river to the fishing holes.

The water is so shallow, some boat ramps are unusable, said Nelson "Butch" Ward of Clear Spring, president of the Maryland Bass Association and winner of many bass fishing tournaments.

It is also harder to navigate around the exposed and submerged rocks, he said. He's seen the river as low as two to three inches in places, he said.

Fisherman Ron Hovis of Hagerstown said he's noticed the eating cycles of bass and bluegill are more erratic in the morning this summer. They are only eating when hungry, he said.

Hovis said his 16-foot flat bottom fishing boat is getting scraped up because he is hitting submerged rocks he has never hit before.

Even though his boat only goes about six inches into the water, he's had to get out and pull the boat through the water, he said.

The deepest water he has seen is about 10 feet, he said.

Elsewhere on the river, the warm, dry weather is a mixed blessing for Harpers Ferry River Riders Inc., a rafting company that serves about 12,000 people annually and operates seven days a week. It rents inner tubes, canoes and kayaks.

"The hot dry weather is actually bringing us a lot of business," said Assistant Manager Ryan Orndorff. As more people learn that there is a drought and realize its implications, business may drop off, Orndorff said.

The company is discounting some trips by 15 percent and reducing them from 31/2 to 21/2 hours, eliminating the Shenandoah River and rafting exclusively on the Potomac, he said. The Shenandoah is even more shallow than the Potomac and has more rocks to wreak havoc.

The rapids have also mellowed in the shallow water, said Natasha Baihly, manager of River and Trail Outfitters of Knoxville, Md.

Business has not dropped since people are coming to beat the heat, she said.

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