CUMBERLAND — At the request of Canal Place officials, the Allegany County Health Department is working on setting up a protocol to test bacteria levels in the North Branch of the Potomac River to see if the water quality is safe to promote the creation of an entry area for canoe and kayak access.
Dee Dee Ritchie, executive director of the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority, met on Tuesday with Brian Dicken, director of environmental health, at the health department to go over sites at the river below the dam for testing.
Ritchie, who said she had worked for the Department of Natural Resources for 23 years prior to coming to Canal Place, wants to be sure the water quality is safe before creating any opportunity for public access.
Like the broader River Project, which hopes to facilitate the removal of the dam beneath the Cumberland-Ridgeley, W.Va., bridge to create a river-based recreational area, Ritchie’s idea hopes to allow use of the historic waterway for the community.
“We need to take advantage of the resources we have. It’s another opportunity,” said Ritchie.
Unlike the drilling needed for determining the level of dioxins behind the dam that will cost around $75,000, analyzing the water for bacteria is a simple test done with a bottle.
“The cost is very, very low. We use a bottle. It’s a simple test,” said Dicken.
Health department officials are trying to gauge the level of coliform bacteria in the river’s water. Dicken said it’s the same testing that is done at Rocky Gap and other recreationally used bodies of water.
“We will set up a few samples in the area and get some numbers. We will also look for historical numbers from past testing,” said Dicken.
The next step is to contact other agencies to evaluate the plan and examine the possibilities, according to Dicken.
The challenge for having good water quality is presented from the region’s combined storm and sewer systems, which overflow into the river as well as other bodies of water during heavy rains.
“There is a lot of money being spent (in the area) to abate the problem,” said Dicken.
Several combined storm overflow system improvements are being completed in the region to reduce the spillover of sewer affluent and storm runoff into the waterways.
“There are outfalls where you have overflows. You have to release the pressure,” said Dicken.
Although Rocky Gap has a bathing permit, no such permit is being sought for the North Branch at this time.
During heavy rains, waterways can get high levels of unhealthy bacteria like fecal coliform, which can be dangerous and result in the issue of a public warning or advisory, according to Dicken.
If the testing of the North Branch shows good water quality, it could be good news for supporters of river access and tourism.
“From a public health standpoint, there is nothing that would be stopping it,” said Dicken.
No date has been set for the tests of the river’s water at this time.
Ritchie also sounded a hopeful note for quality of the sediment that might be found behind the dam. To move forward with the River Project, the toxin levels in the sediment must first be studied.
While an employee at the DNR, she worked on other local industrial dam removal projects.
“We removed dams behind the Celanese and PPG and it wasn’t bad. We didn’t have to do anything,” said Ritchie.
Ritchie was referring to the potential for dredging and its associated costs.
Some officials have expressed concern over the costs of the dam beneath the Cumberland-Ridgeley bridge’s removal.
Greg Larry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.