Great outdoors minutes away in Patapsco, Patuxent areas Two reservoirs of WSSC a well-kept secret


Maybe it's a name problem.

The name "Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission" doesn't suggest a park, much less a recreation area of 6,000 acres, encompassing 1,200 acres of water.

But the Patuxent River reservoirs and watersheds that shape Howard's southern border may be the best-kept secret in Maryland, say members of the WSSC, which manages the area.

"People still say to me, 'I've lived here for 20 years, and I never knew you were 10 minutes away,' " said Michael Grear, the watershed manager. The WSSC was created by the state in 1918 and is a bi-county agency, run for Montgomery and Prince George's counties by a board of commissioners.

Brighton Dam, which creates the Triadelphia Reservoir, and T. Howard Duckett Dam, better know as Rocky Gorge, were built by the WSSC in the 1940s and '50s to provide water to Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Today, boat launches, equestrian trails, fishing and picnicking facilities are scattered along the river.

A little ranger cabin just across the Brighton Dam bridge, on Brighton Dam Road, carries maps, information and permits for fishing, boating and horseback riding.

A modest tree identification display there is about the extent of WSSC's educational endeavors, except for informal requests.

"Tour guides are no longer in existence," says Grear. "There is tremendous potential for education, if we only had the staff."

Meanwhile, use of the watershed continues to grow at a steady 5 percent to 15 percent a year because of population growth and an economy that encourages recreation closer to home.

With the current atmosphere of budget restraint, WSSC finances have been strained, although selling reservoir water is a source of revenue. Howard County is one customer, to the tune of 1 million gallons a day.

Attempting to be more self-sufficient, the WSSC is experimenting with rare trees such as the paulownia, a fast-growing wood in high demand in Japan. It also leases watershed land to Christmas tree farmers.

"The public shouldn't notice any impact from budget cuts," said Grear, who lost one staff member from financial belt-tightening. Volunteer help from Eagle Scouts, seniors and fishing groups helps to fill the gaps. "But we are falling behind in some maintenance."

One victim is the magnificent Brighton Azalea Gardens, the biggest drawing card in the park during its open season, when the gardens attract about 50,000 visitors. On Mother's Day alone, up to 7,000 visitors revel in the garden's 22,000 huge old azaleas, which range from white and palest pink to carmine and fuchsia.

"It's a real knockout," says Grear. "But the older varieties, planted 30 to 40 years ago, are very woody and demand pruning."

The watershed's biggest users are fishermen who can still get away from it all on the reservoirs.

"When you're out there, you don't realize you're literally five or 10 minutes away from a heck of a lot of people."

Park permits are only $3 a day or $30 for a 291-day season, said Grear.

"The WSSC reservoirs are one of the most liberal in Maryland in terms of type, variety and amount of usage," said Grear. "Most reservoirs don't allow any usage."

He traces this philosophy back to a commitment made when the reservoirs were created.

"Hey, if we're going to take this land and build this dam, we should give something back," Grear said. This is especially true in the case of Triadelphia Reservoir -- the little town of Triadelphia lies at the bottom.

What the Brighton and Duckett dams have given back, Grear said, are the reservoirs -- "two jewels on the Patuxent."

The ranger cabin at Brighton Dam is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Call 774-9124. The Brighton Azalea Gardens are open until the end of May.

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