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River guides want more water released from dam over summer

They say low flow from Jennings Randolph Lake decimates trout populaton in Potomac’s North Branch

Michael A. Sawyers Cumberland Times-News

CUMBERLAND — The trout population in the North Branch of the Potomac River from Westernport to Black Oak Bottom has crashed since 2009, according to Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters.

Not only does that diminish river recreation, but it has reduced his business by 30 percent, the outfitter from Garrett County said Wednesday.

The impact on the business at Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing has been severe, according to owner and operator William Heresniak.

“From 2003 to 2008, we floated the North Branch 70 to 80 times each summer,” Heresniak said Wednesday. “This past summer we floated it only a half-dozen times.”

The culprits, Harsh and Heresniak agree, are the low flows released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Jennings Randolph Dam during the hot months.

“The low flows result in high temperatures that the trout cannot survive,” Heresniak said, adding that from 2003 to 2008, during higher flows, his flyfishing clients were catching and releasing 25 to 50 trout apiece per trip.

In July, Harsh checked the water temperature in that stretch of river, finding overnight readings of 71 and midday levels as high as 85, he said.

Enter The Greater Cumberland Committee, which has been asked by the guides to facilitate meetings with the Corps and appropriate officials from Maryland and West Virginia to create a water release schedule that will allow trout to survive the summer.

“We see the river and the trout fishing as an economic driver,” said Brenda Smith, executive director of TGCC. Smith has begun contacting officials such as U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin to create a conclave on the matter.

The river’s status as an economic generator was established in 2010 in a study by Downstream Strategies of Morgantown, W.Va.

Anglers who fish that portion of river as well as above the reservoir spend $3 million annually for products and services including lodging, food, gas and entertainment, the report claims.

“We’ve started to have a lot of fishers stay, eat and drink,” Fred Engle, owner of the Candlewyck Inn in Keyser, W.Va., told the Times-News in 2010.

Heresniak said flows of 400 cubic feet per second are ideal for fishing and trout survival. Monitoring stations managed by the U.S. Geological Survey this past summer showed flows through that stretch were usually about half that volume.

Ken Pavol, president of the Western Maryland Professional Fishing Guides Association and a retired Department of Natural Resources fishery biologist, said Wednesday that a formal, written agreement is needed, such as the one that exists between the Corps and the whitewater rafting community.

“A healthy trout fishery and the other benefits that come from it should not have any lesser consideration than a beach or a whitewater rafting trip,” Pavol said.

Don Cosden, who directs freshwater fisheries management for the DNR, said in an email response that “the addition of a beach on the lake … has introduced another demand on the use of the water. To keep the beach open, the lake level must remain at 1,455 feet or higher. This has caused the (Corps) to reduce discharge much earlier in the season and, at times, to levels well below what we feel should be the minimum.

“We believe that the fishery and the cold-water aquatic community should be given priority over the beach. An early beach closure may have impacts on the recreational use of the lake, but these are temporary. The beach can be reopened if precipitation increases later in the season and it certainly will reopen the following season with no long-term impacts. Trophy trout and other cold-water resources can take years to recover, with significant loss to anglers, guides, businesses and at increased expense to DNR for corrective stocking,” Cosden said.

Julie Fritz, the Corps’ Baltimore District chief of water control, said Wednesday that the agency has been working for years with federal, state and local entities concerned about the impact of releases on the downstream trout fishery.

Fritz said a formal written agreement about such releases is unlikely because recreational downstream fishing is not among the congressionally authorized purposes of the project, as is whitewater rafting, flood control, in-lake recreation and drinking water supply.

“The downstream trout fishing is an incidental benefit that comes from one of the project’s authorized purposes, that being water quality control,” Fritz said.

“When making releases, we consider the current water available, the time of year, the impact on all the project purposes,” Fritz said. “Each year is a learning experience in the hydrological and hydraulic sense and we make the best decisions we can for all the various user groups.”

Contact Michael A. Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.