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Bill to lower Deep Creek Lake faces opposition

In World
February 19, 2024

Feb. 19—OAKLAND — Sometimes people forget Deep Creek Lake was built to produce electricity, Dustin Droege said.

He’s director of operations at Brookfield Renewable US, which owns and runs the lake’s dam that helps power the region.

The hydroelectric generation station was built nearly 100 years ago and is permitted to operate by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Now, proposed legislation aims to restrict how the dam functions, Droege said.

“If we can’t operate, then we don’t have a business,” he said.

The bill

Senate Bill 837, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKay and Del. Jim Hinebaugh on the House cross file, would require Brookfield this year through 2028 to lower Deep Creek Lake for at least four weeks between Nov. 30 and Feb. 28 for the Department of Natural Resources to study invasive and nuisance plants and sediments.

The study would be paid for by the State Lakes Protection and Restoration Fund and the Deep Creek Lake Recreation and Management Fund.

DNR would be required to submit findings to the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Deep Creek Lake Policy Review Board, the bill states.

“This is a request by the Garrett County commissioners and it is my responsibility to be the vessel to the Maryland General Assembly for legislative requests,” McKay said via email Friday.

Garrett County Administrator Kevin Null did not immediately return a Cumberland Times-News email request for comment Friday afternoon.

McKay provided a list that includes dates of emails and meetings, and names of parties involved in the idea to lower the lake.

“The genesis on this legislation predates my tenure of senator,” he said. Because lake levels have been discussed for years and impact multiple parties, “I found the need to study the subject.”

Passage of the bill would “give us data” to see if lowering the lake per MDE rules can be law, McKay said.

“I welcome suggestions,” he said.

A hearing for the bill is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The problems

The bill threatens to change current permit requirements Brookfield follows to meet consumer demand for its product and obligations to the public, Droege said.

If the lake were lowered as the bill proposes, the hydroelectric plant would operate at diminished capacity.

Additionally, a plan that was highly scrutinized is already in place.

MDE in 2020 approved Brookfield’s application to renew its permit, which is good for 12 years and regulates release of water “to be used for hydroelectric power generation, temperature enhancement, whitewater boating enhancement, and maintenance of minimum flows in the Youghiogheny River.”

The permit includes rules for the highest and lowest desirable reservoir levels at the end of each month, and outlines whitewater releases.

Before MDE approved Brookfield’s current permit, three stakeholder meetings were held that included presentations by MDE and Brookfield.

There were subcommittee meetings, and a public information hearing and comment period.

Droege said that permitting procedure should be upheld, and the SB 837 should fail.

“There is an existing process that intends to include all stakeholders,” he said. “This bill is an attempt to go around that process.”

Whitewater impacts

As a Friendsville resident, former 20-year councilman and whitewater kayak expert, Jess Whittemore is the town’s Youghiogheny River liaison.

He’s followed the dam’s permitting process for three decades, and was surprised by SB 837.

“I didn’t know it was happening,” Whittemore said. “Usually (MDE) will contact the stakeholders when they’re impacted. That didn’t happen.”

He learned of the proposal to drop the lake’s water level from Brookfield.

“This bill circumvents MDE’s involvement,” Whittemore said. “They’re cutting out all the stakeholders.”

Depending on river and energy market conditions, Brookfield holds nearly 70 scheduled whitewater releases into the Youghiogheny River annually from April to October.

The company lists the whitewater schedule at safewaters.com.

American Whitewater calls the Upper Yough “a truly exceptional class IV/V river that has attracted the paddlers from around the globe for decades.”

Brookfield’s “predictable summer releases make this one of the main playgrounds for Eastern Class-IV and Class-V boaters,” Americanwhitewater.org states. “The rapids are continuous, technical, beautiful, and intoxicating.”

‘Economic future’

Whittemore talked of “hundreds of cars” filled with whitewater rafters and kayakers that visit Friendsville each year for Brookfield’s scheduled whitewater releases.

“We get a lot of people coming through this town,” he said. “It’s our economic future.”

For nearly 40 years, Kim Spear has worked at the Friendsville liquor store that gets very busy when the whitewater enthusiasts come to town.

“We look forward to it every year,” she said.

“They’re great people. They come from all over,” Spear said. “It’s really great for us and the rest of the town.”

With nearly 50 years years of rafting and kayaking experience, Roger Zbel represents the commercial outfitters on the Upper Yough.

In a letter to McKay, he said the request to hold Deep Creek Lake at a lower level for the bill’s proposed time period can devastate rafting, whitewater and fishery interests.

“The commercial whitewater outfitters strongly oppose this bill because there has been no public process and no transparency to the other stakeholders,” Zbel said. “Requiring Brookfield renewable energy to hold the lake at the lower level for that period of time has great potential for not being able to refill the lake for the next summer season.”

In a fiscal policy note, the first read of SB 837 addresses its potential impact to local businesses.

“MDE advises that holding the Deep Creek Lake water low during the winter reduces the likelihood that the water levels will be high enough during the spring for whitewater rafting and cold-water fishing releases from the dam. Although MDE advises that the likelihood of this occurring is low, to the extent that it occurs, the tourism industry in the area around the lake could be negatively affected.”

Legislation discussions

According to October meeting minutes from the Deep Creek Lake Policy Review Board about drawdown of the lake, “a meeting was held with the legislators and commissioners, that led to a meeting with DNR and MDE leadership.”

The goal of the meetings was “to draft legislation to submit to the General Assembly for the study of the effects of drawdown,” the minutes state and add that MDE and DNR should be kept informed “so that the state supports the legislation.”

The Deep Creek Watershed Foundation’s website states it is a public charity formed in 2016.

“Legislation is needed to address the lack of enforceable regulations” regarding launch and operation of boats that have been exposed to aquatic invasive species, the website states.

“The assistant states attorney assigned to Deep Creek Lake has agreed to help craft the legislation,” it states.

The foundation did not acknowledge Cumberland Times-News requests for comments.

John Bambacus, former state senator and mayor of Frostburg and member of the Garrett County Forestry Board, in an email talked of ambiguous sections in SB 837, and questioned its origin.

“The public, and those most affected, once again, are left out of the discussion to proceed with this ‘impact study,'” he said.

Teresa McMinn is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or [email protected].

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