ANNAPOLIS - A brand-new gift is how Gary Yoder, 64, describes the 30 miles from Westernport to Cumberland on the North Branch of the Potomac River. For the 30-year resident of Garrett County, fly fishing is a religious experience when he stands in the river underneath the autumn leaves.
This wasn't always the case. This stretch of river was unfishable because of pollution from acidic water draining from abandoned mines. But because of the extensive efforts of the Acid Mine Drainage Program, many of Garrett County's rivers and streams are being restored, and fish are making a comeback.
The program, however, is facing a budget shortfall and could run out of operating money by 2014. Without funding for the systems that keep waterways clean, rivers and streams will revert to polluted conditions - having a severe impact on fisheries and wildlife in the area as well as on the Chesapeake Bay.
"We're not going to run out of money to build new systems," said Constance Lyons Loucks, chief of the acid mine drainage section in the Maryland Bureau of Mines. "We're definitely running out of money to operate the systems, and costs are going up exponentially because of what's going on in the world."
The Acid Mine Drainage Program has received about $8.2 million in federal grants since 1982 - money that is allocated for construction or assessment costs. None of this money can be used for operating and maintaining the systems.
Polluted waterways are one consequence of the nearly 450 abandoned mines that predate the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which regulated the mining industry, rehabilitated abandoned mines and put environmental protections in place.
Groundwater that drains from abandoned mines contains high levels of acidity and metals such as iron, aluminum and manganese, which are detrimental to aquatic and plant life.
Two types of systems are used to treat affected waterways depending on what the specific issues are at each site. An active system utilizes a limestone doser, a machine that dispenses appropriate amounts of lime into the streams to neutralize acids.
Passive systems include limestone drains and specially designed wetlands that act like filtering ponds to treat contaminated water.
Operation and maintenance costs half a million dollars annually and is funded by the Acid Mine Drainage Trust Fund. Money from fees on coal mining is collected each year by the federal government and allocated to the states.
The trust fund receives a percentage of the funds that are allotted to Maryland - $148,000 annually. The fund has been hovering around $2 million, but with declining interest rates and increasing costs for materials and staffing, the funding will run out by 2014, if not earlier.
"Mine drainage problems are long-term problems that don't really go away," said Mike Garner, water resource engineer at the Maryland Department of the Environment, Bureau of Mines. "These are problems that will go on for a century or more."
Continuous treatment is necessary in order to keep the water clean.
State officials are beginning to look at ways to reallocate existing funds, find new sources of funding and share resources with adjacent states. But, given the current economic situation, it might be difficult.
The streams and creeks in Garrett County are an important part of Maryland's overall ecosystem. What happens at these headwaters has an impact downstream.
"A healthy headwater stream will recycle nutrients and sequester carbon, so that helps to reduce the nutrients that reach the [Chesapeake Bay] and tidal waters," said Don Cosden, chief of inland fisheries at the Department of Natural Resources.
Bay restoration will be much more difficult if the function of the headwater streams is lost, Cosden said.
Since the Acid Mine Drainage Program began in 1993, it is estimated that 81 miles of waterways have been cleaned and 47 of those miles have become fishable again.