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Conservationists say drought puts river's fish at great risk

August 23, 1999

Just when we thought we'd heard about every possible ill effect of the ongoing drought, along come the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society with another horror story. The two conservation organizations, along with the Montgomery County. Md. executive's office, say that the low water flow in the Potomac River is putting aquatic life there in jeopardy.

Those groups want additional water released from reservoirs upstream to raise the river levels. We believe caution is the best approach now, but hope that officials are studying additional measures for water storage so the region can more easily weather the next drought.

The nature organizations and officials in Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's office feel that the agreement signed 18 years on minimum river flow isn't adequate to protect fish and other river creatures. Back then, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. agreed that the Potomac River flow must be at least 100 million gallons per day to serve water to those communities that draw drinking water supplies from the river.

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The flow rate fell below 200 million gallons per day last week, prompting statements by officials who say that without additional water, habitat for juvenile fish would decrease by 80 percent. But the executive director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin says no one has made a scientifically sound case that fish are at risk now.

We understand the dilemma officials face: If they release additional water now and the rains don't come, and people don't have water to drink or operate their businesses, there will be a water-shortage emergency, complete with rationing and other unpleasant rules.

And so we counsel caution, a caution that includes looking again at plans for the construction of additional water storage areas that were shelved 20 years ago. If some of those facilities had been built then, maybe here wouldn't be a need now to debate the fate of the Potomac River's fish.

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