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Conservation advocate suggests dismantling Devil's Backbone Dam

Advice contradicts preliminary feedback from consultants hired to study issue

May 04, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Removing, rather than repairing, the failing Devil's Backbone Dam would have benefits for fish and boaters, and could be less expensive long term, a river conservation advocate told the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday.

Serena S. McClain, associate director of river restoration for American Rivers, a national conservation organization, encouraged the commissioners not to rule out removal of the dam before seeing a cost comparison and considering the benefits of dam removal.

If the 9-foot-tall dam is left standing, regulatory agencies will probably require a fish ladder or similar device to allow migrating fish to get past the dam, McClain said. Fish passage facilities cost, on average, $45,000 per vertical foot, she said.

In addition, fish ladders provide passage only for target species at certain life stages, and they require maintenance and upkeep throughout the life of the dam, she said.

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Removal also would eliminate the liability and upkeep cost associated with the dam and would open more of Antietam Creek to boating tourism, McClain said.

"I would say in 90 percent of the cases, it's cheaper to remove a dam," McClain said.

That advice contradicted preliminary feedback from consultants hired by the county to study the dam. The consultants' gut feeling was that the extensive stream bank restoration associated with removing the dam would make repairing it the less-expensive option, county public works director Joseph Kroboth III said.

A full report on the options and their costs is due in mid-May and should be presented to the commissioners later this month, he said.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has deemed the 100-year-old, county-owned dam to be unsafe and has ordered the county to correct the problem.

Kroboth said the need for a fish ladder had been recognized throughout project discussions.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said he felt the population's divided feelings on the dam put the commissioners in a "predetermined no-win situation" and he suggested holding a meeting in which each side could be weighed.

"Fifty percent of the room is clearly saying ... this dam is part of this park and this setting, and 50 percent of the room is saying long-term ecological and environmental benefits from fishing to canoeing to the ecology in general is the way to go," he said.

Aleshire said that in the current economic climate, cost would be a big factor in the decision.

McClain said some grant funding was available to help with dam removal projects. American Rivers will have about $800,000 to distribute next spring to projects nationwide, though the process is competitive and the maximum grant is $100,000, she said.

Lawmakers have confirmed that matching funds of as much as $550,000 offered by the state for the project could be used for either repair or removal of the dam, Kroboth said.

McClain said she spent Tuesday morning visiting the dam and talking to fishermen.

"I understand the community desire to keep it," she said. "It was pretty. And it's peaceful, and it's nice."

However, McClain said areas of the creek that do not feature dams are also pretty, peaceful and nice.

She said that after a recent dam removal project in Pennsylvania, fishermen were happy to find that trout body mass increased 50 percent due to greater insect species diversity.

About a dozen members of the Antietam Creek Watershed Alliance, Beaver Creek Watershed Association and Antietam Fly Anglers groups attended the meeting.

Doug Hutzell, a former MDE employee and member of the Beaver Creek and Antietam Fly Anglers groups, said after the meeting he felt strongly that removing the dam was the best option because of its benefits to the health of the stream.

"I don't believe the dam is useful for anything other than aesthetics," he said, adding that the park would still have plenty of cascading water without the dam as the creek flowed naturally over rocks.

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