xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Duckett Dam was operated responsibly during heavy rainstorm [Commentary]

On Aug. 12, a downpour hit Laurel, dumping 4.47 inches of rain on the area in little over two hours. The rain flooded downtown Laurel. Much of downtown Laurel is built on a floodplain — "a nearly flat plain along the course of a stream or river that is naturally subject to flooding" (Dictionary.com). Dam or no dam, WSSC or no WSSC, in times of heavy rainfall, Laurel will flood.

No floodgates were opened that day at the nearby WSSC T. Howard Duckett Dam. Nevertheless, the Patuxent River jumped its banks, flooding Laurel's parks, parking lots and downtown streets. But no water from WSSC's Rocky Gorge Reservoir flowed into the river to aggravate the flooding. It was all rainwater and rain runoff from the river banks.

Advertisement

Laurel also experienced flooding last April during an even more intense rainstorm, during which WSSC was compelled to release water from the Duckett Dam. Although this decision has generated criticism and controversy, WSSC believed then and believes now that this decision was absolutely correct, for the following reasons.

Duckett Dam and Brighton Dam (upriver from Duckett) were built specifically to create drinking water reservoirs, not to control flooding. The head of Maryland's Department of the Environment (MDE), Robert Summers, said exactly that in a recent letter: "… the dams are in place to provide drinking water for WSSC's customers and are not designed to provide significant flood control." Summers was responding to a letter from Laurel businessman Fred Frederick to Gov. Martin O'Malley (and to others) concerning the losses Mr. Frederick asserts he experienced during the April storm.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In addition, MDE, through its Dam Safety Program, closely regulates how WSSC operates Duckett Dam, including notification procedures that must be followed when water is released. We also have notification protocols established with the City of Laurel and others, which we follow conscientiously. In fact, we had met with Laurel officials just a week prior to the April storms.

On Sunday, April 27, the National Weather Service predicted heavy rain during the week ahead. WSSC began releasing water from Duckett Dam that day, and notified Laurel. As the week went on and more rain fell, WSSC released additional water from both dams and notified all affected parties in advance. WSSC communicated constantly with the City of Laurel during the week.

Like all major infrastructure installations, the Duckett Dam is regularly inspected and periodically renovated and repaired. Last April, a construction project marginally impaired the structure's vertical supports. Late in the evening of April 30, WSSC inspectors observed water from the reservoir flowing through a seam where the dam's concrete meets its elevated service road. WSSC inspectors were concerned that the erosion around one such support had the potential to cause the dam to fail.

This elevated the situation to an MDE "Emergency Level 2: Potential Dam Failure Situation; Rapidly Developing." As Secretary Summers noted in his letter, "… it became necessary for the operators to open the floodgates to prevent damage to the dam and prevent an even more catastrophic flood if the dam were to fail."

Advertisement

The additional release of water needed to be immediate. As soon as the determination was made, WSSC informed Laurel. We absolutely would have preferred to give notification allowing more time for evacuation, but in this case that was not possible.

WSSC took the necessary steps to protect the dam, drinking water and people downstream. During severe rainstorms, Laurel will flood, dam or no dam. Often the dam prevents flooding in Laurel or, as on Aug. 12, mitigates the extent of the flooding.

I would rather have to explain why the extreme circumstances that arose on April 30 required WSSC to open the Duckett floodgates, than deal with the aftermath of the dam's collapse and the consequences of such a public calamity (flooding, thousands without drinking water, extensive property damage, bodily injury and probable fatalities.)

The desire to avoid such a calamity guided the decisions and actions of WSSC and its staff throughout the rain event of April 30-May 1.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement