Cumberland Times-News

October 23, 2013

Plans for recreational use of Potomac move forward

Greg Larry
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — Delegate Kevin Kelly is moving forward with an effort to determine who is the owner of the dam beneath the Cumberland-Ridgeley Bridge by pursuing the question with the office of Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

Kelly had sent an email to the attorney general’s office following a June 6 public meeting on the River Project held at the Allegany Museum. Around 200 people attended the meeting, which featured several experts discussing the project.

Utilizing the North Branch of the Potomac River for recreational activity is seen by many officials as creating another way to increase the amount of tourism dollars that come into the area. River access would be offered along side other attractions like the Great Allegheny Passage, C&O Canal towpath and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.

Although Kelly remains skeptical about the larger River Project, which would include the removal of the dam beneath the bridge, he would like answers as to who owns the dam.

Kelly had not received a final answer on dam ownership following his June email, so he sent a follow-up email last week.

“I would have thought by now we would know something,” said Kelly, “They (the attorney general’s office) said they would pursue it.”

Kelly said that it is important to find out who owns the dam so it can be established who is responsible for it.

However, the actual removal of the dam to open the waterway for unimpeded boat traffic and other recreational activity seems like a longshot to Kelly.

“The numbers I’m hearing to dredge the toxins behind that dam, I feel, make the project cost prohibitive,” said Kelly.

Numbers discussed by officials at the June 6 meeting had the project running as high as $5 million or more. Testing of the sediments behind the dam in 2010 revealed dioxin and other toxins, which would have to be removed by dredging.

With many hurdles to overcome before the dam could be removed, several proponents of river recreation have turned to smaller projects such as establishing a boat launch for canoes and kayaks near Canal Place.

“We are located at the center-point of the trails,” said Cumberland councilman Nick Scarpelli, “We need to find a way to use the river as a resource.”

Scarpelli and Dee Dee Ritchie, the executive director of Canal Place, as well as Mayor Brian Grim are just some of the officials getting behind the idea of establishing a more feasible project in establishing a boat launch.

“Dam removal is going to be a major project. However, to create water access to the river, a boat launch would be a great way to do that,” said Grim.

Ritchie has hired Thrasher Engineering of Oakland to do a study of the site at Canal Place to see how a boat launch site would best be designed.

“We would like to get the boat launch built as close to Canal Place as possible,” said Ritchie.

Ritchie said she hopes the plans of a boat launch will be ready by March.

Another issue that must be taken into consideration is the water quality of the river below the dam due to the placement of two combined sewer overflow stations on the river just below Canal Place.

Many older communities, when establishing their underground sewer and storm runoff lines, combined the pipe systems. This was done in the era before waste water treatment plants had become the standard way to process effluent.

However, during heavy rains, pressure builds up on the CSO systems and must be released by allowing the overflow to be released in the waterways, such as the Potomac.

“The thought was that the storm water would dilute the sewage so much that it wouldn’t be harmful. We now know that is not so,” said John DiFonzo, engineer for the city of Cumberland.

Officials now know that any untreated sewage can release fecal bacteria into the waterways.

DiFonzo said that the state and the Environmental Protection Agency have placed the city under a consent order to eliminate the CSO overflows before 2020.

“We have done a lot of projects and spent a lot of money working on the problem,” said DiFonzo.

However, the current economic situation across the country has made obtaining funds to do CSO overflow abatement projects very difficult.

“We are working on a facility at the Mason Sporting Complex in South End to capture the overflow during heavy rains in large holding tanks beneath the ground. Then it could be piped to the treatment plant later,” said DiFonzo.

This would prevent the overflow effluent from having to be released into the river during heavy rain.

DiFonzo said the problem is that the state has only been able to make $1.5 million available for the project that is expected to cost nearly $30 million to complete.

“We are continuing to plan and we hope to find financing at some point,” said DiFonzo.

Meanwhile, officials feel the river is safe for canoeing and kayak use and have no desire to pursue any bathing permits at this time.

Like the slow moving CSO abatement projects, efforts to use the river for recreational use, and capture an even larger piece of the tourism-dollar pie, continue to inch forward.

Greg Larry can be contacted at