For the first time in more than a year, the waters of the Potomac River fill the C&O; Canal in Great Falls and Washington.
Like filling a bathtub, workers this week are letting the river flow into the dry ditch in preparation for today's launch of the Canal Clipper, the mule-drawn passenger barge at Great Falls.
Twice last year, the 184-mile C&O; Canal National Historical Park was raked by flood runoff: first from January's blizzard, then in September when Tropical Storm Fran swept through.
The receding waters tore holes in the earthen canal walls and allowed the water to drain into the Potomac River below.
And twice, thousands of volunteers and park employees swarmed to repair the erosion damage, replace the portions of pedestrian bridges linking the canal towpath to Olmstead and Falls islands near Great Falls and haul away tons of muck and uprooted trees.
Both times, they worked smarter.
Weak spots in the towpath that historically have blown out in floods are being evaluated for ways to minimize future damage.
The pilings that secure the island bridges are fastened in bedrock and reinforced with hunks of concrete the size of refrigerators.
Almost all bridge railings are removable so debris that washes downstream doesn't jam up and put a strain on the underpinnings.
Despite their efforts, however, workers know it might not be enough to protect one of the region's most beloved resources.
The January 1996 flood was only the fourth-highest recorded at Great Falls.
The high water mark came in 1936, followed by the floods of 1942, 1972 and 1937.
"One of the things the park is trying to do this time is change the designs to withstand flooding. But I don't think we'll ever out-smart Mother Nature," concedes park Ranger Tom Nash.
Nor will they be able to buy their way back to pre-1996 conditions.
The National Park Service estimates the damage from both storms at $40 million but is projecting it will receive $24.5 million over the next three years to spend on restoration.
Not all of the towpath surfaces have been repaired, and a portion of the canal between Great Falls and Washington is not being rewatered.
While the storms devastated the canal as it winds along the Potomac from Georgetown to Cumberland, the public's attention and the publicity -- centered on the 14-mile stretch nearest Washington, which attracts the bulk of the park's 5 million annual visitors.
Runners and mountain bikers share the dirt path with casual strollers and bird-watchers.
The waters attract fishermen and canoeists and world-class whitewater kayakers. Families hold reunions and birthday parties under the trees near the historic Great Falls Tavern. Boy Scouts earn merit badges for a canal camping trip.
For people such as Paul Rosa, that's reason enough to take on canal restoration as a full-time job.
From the beginning, the executive director of the Potomac Conservancy sorted through the thousands of offers of help that came in: cash, volunteers, consultants, free dirt to patch the holes and the equipment to move and smooth it.
"It was more work than we anticipated," he acknowledged. "Resources fell into place, though.
"It was a case of matching skills to problems. When something was needed, it magically appeared."
Rosa even found a silver lining to Tropical Storm Fran.
"When the second flood hit, we had just finished grading a four-mile stretch," he said. "People would think that was lost work, but that wasn't the case. Our grading helped the water run off cleanly."
This winter's weather gods atoned for last year's excesses, giving carpenters and those clearing debris a chance to make serious headway. And volunteers and park maintenance staff have stepped up their efforts in recent days to have things running before April's end.
The remaining piece of the canal that winds through tony Georgetown will be rewatered on April 14, and the second passenger barge, the Georgetown, will be floated after a volunteer cleanup of the park April 12.
"We're racing against the clock and Mother Nature," said Brad Lewis, a 22-year National Park Service employee.
"But we'll be up and good to go. We'll just work around the visitors if we have to."
Pub Date: 4/03/97