What Does the Future Hold for Savage River Releases?

Posted: 05/02/2001
by Jason Robertson

On April 4th, 2001 American Whitewater wrote the Upper Potomac River Commission requesting a meeting to discuss the future of whitewater releases on the Savage River. A copy of this letter is attached. As of May 2nd, the UPRC has failed to respond to this or earlier requests, and has not returned our phone calls.

Mr. Jim Taylor
Upper Potomac River Commission (UPRC)
528 Maryland Avenue
Westernport, MD 21562
April 4, 2001

Re: Whitewater Releases on Maryland's Savage River 2000 & 2001

Dear Mr. Taylor,

As American Whitewater's Access Director, I represent American Whitewater's members, the USCKT, and other whitewater interests in Maryland and neighboring regions. The Upper Potomac River Commission's (UPRC) failure to hold scheduled recreational whitewater releases on the Savage River in September 2000 is of great concern to my constituents. Additionally, as a Garrett County land owner, Montgomery County voter and resident, and Maryland whitewater boater, reliable access to recreational flows on the Savage is of great personal importance to me.

The decision not to release water for whitewater recreation in 2000 is not easily understood or justified. The decision is especially confusing since: 1) Maryland's State Department of the Environment found there would be "negligible" effects; 2) Garrett County's Commissioners supported the proposed releases based on economic benefits; 3) the reservoir had more water than usual for the time of year (85% vs. 65% full); 4) safety and debris concerns were addressed by volunteers prior to the scheduled releases; and 5) whitewater recreation is specifically identified by law as one of four project purposes.

American Whitewater has nearly 600 members in Maryland and represents another 2,000 Maryland whitewater boaters through our affiliate clubs. Additionally, we represent more than 10,000 whitewater boaters in neighboring Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and District of Columbia who live within four hours of the Savage River.

On the rare occasions when the UPRC has scheduled recreational whitewater releases there has been significant interest within the whitewater paddling community, and boaters have driven to the Savage from all around the mid-Atlantic states. These visitors travel through Maryland, dine in Maryland, stay in Maryland's hotels overnight, and generally contribute to Maryland's rural and suburban economies.

Recognizing the value of whitewater releases to the local economy, the Board of Garrett County Commissioners supported the 2000 whitewater release application "based on benefits to recreation and tourism in Garrett County, and because of the abundance of water in the Savage Reservoir."

As you know, the Savage River Dam was constructed in 1952 for flood control, water storage, and low flow augmentation. In 1988, under the Water Resources Development Act, Congress added a fourth project purpose, "downstream recreation," defined specifically to include both whitewater boating and fishing.

The Upper Potomac River Commission (UPRC) was established in 1935 (Chapter 409, Acts of 1935) and has jurisdiction over the water resources of Allegany County and Election District 4 (Bloomington) in Garrett County, Maryland. The UPRC has owned the dam since July 1953 and supervises the project in order to regulate the flow of the Potomac River. The project is operated in cooperation with the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Until recently, the Savage was the premier whitewater race course in the United States. Since 1969, it has been the site of the World Championships, the Pan American Cup, the World Cup, and US Olympic Team Trials. In 1987, the State of Maryland invested nearly $2,000,000 in improvements on the Savage for the 1989 World Championships and generated an estimated $10,000,000 in economic benefits to Western Maryland.

On September 12, 2000 Larry Lubbers wrote the attached letter to you on behalf of the United States Canoe & Kayak Team (USCKT), Wildwater Committee, American Whitewater, and Maryland's whitewater boating community. Mr. Lubbers requested confirmation that the whitewater releases, previously requested by the Adventuresports Institute, would occur on the requested dates of September 29, 30 and October 1, 2000.

On September 14th you sent a reply expressing concern about whether there was "sufficient time to prepare" for the releases. Indicated preparations included addressing "safety issues and debris blockages."

The September 14th letter included, as an attachment, a statement from the Maryland Department of the Environment dated September 6, 2000 that water quality impacts from the scheduled releases would be "negligible."

On September 19th Mr. Lubbers responded to your request for more information and wrote that a work crew including local college students would clear debris prior to the scheduled releases. Consistent with this response, a work crew met on Friday, September 22 and cleared hazardous debris from the river channel. According to Steve Storck, an Associate Professor in the Adventuresports Program at Garrett Community College, volunteers contributed over 150 man hours removing debris. At this time work crew participants still expected that the scheduled releases would occur. However, the recreation releases failed to occur. In fact, the autumn draw down releases occurred later that season, at night, in the cover of darkness.

I repeat that the decision not to release the water for whitewater recreation is of great concern and is not easily justified: 1) Maryland's State Department of the Environment found there would be "negligible" effects; 2) Garrett County's Commissioners supported the proposed releases based on economic benefits; 3) the reservoir had more water than usual for the time of year (85% vs. 65% full); 4) the safety and debris concerns were addressed by volunteers prior to the scheduled releases; and 5) whitewater recreation is specifically identified as a project purpose.

On October 16, 2000 Rich Bowers wrote the attached letter to you on behalf of American Whitewater's members, the USCKT, and Maryland's whitewater boating community. The broad purpose of Mr. Bowers' letter was to identify why the recreational whitewater releases did not occur in 2000, and to begin plans for regularly scheduled recreational whitewater releases in Autumn 2001. Mr. Bowers also called your office and left two messages in late October 2000. As of April 4, 2001 neither Mr. Bowers nor American Whitewater have received any acknowledgement from your office to the letter or the courtesy of a response to the phone calls.

American Whitewater remains interested in pursuing the points detailed in Mr. Bowers' letter. Specifically, we seek to: 1) understand why the request for whitewater releases on the Savage River for the year 2000 was not approved or implemented; 2) learn why fall 2000 draw down releases of the Savage River Reservoir were not publicized and made available during daylight hours on weekends for recreation, and 3) to establish a cooperative framework allowing whitewater boaters to enjoy dependably scheduled whitewater releases in the coming years, including 2001. In addition, we would like to discuss the possibility of expanding the whitewater release window in wet years to include late summer (late July and the month of August), which is supportable under the 1989 fisheries study, and 1991 reservoir study.

We would also like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss these issues in person; I suggest setting aside one to two hours during the first week of May 2001 (between May 1st and 4th).

I look forward to working with you to schedule regular recreational whitewater releases on the Savage River commencing in 2001.

Sincerely,

{SIGNED} Jason D. Robertson
Access Director

Jason Robertson
635 Joseph Cir
Golden, CO 80403-2349