Boats docked at Traders Landing on Deep Creek Lake at dusk.
Boats docked at Traders Landing on Deep Creek Lake at dusk. (AMY DAVIS / Baltimore Sun)

Fights over water rights usually wrack Western states, but a similar debate is bubbling in Western Maryland.

On one side are the thousands of boaters who spend their summers cruising and playing in the waters of Deep Creek Lake, the largest of the state’s lakes, all of them man-made. During the driest years, when lake levels drop too low, waters can recede far enough from some docks that they get trapped by dry land.

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Those enjoying the waters of the nearby Youghiogheny River, which lake waters help feed, have a different set of concerns.

Whitewater rafters and kayakers depend on scheduled releases of lake waters into the river for an exciting ride downstream. The river’s trout, which attract anglers from across the state and region, depend on the surges of cool lake water, because otherwise the river could get too warm for them to survive.

In the middle is a 94-year-old hydroelectric dam that uses the lake water to generate electricity, and also bears some responsibility for keeping water users on both sides of the earthen dike happy. The Maryland Department of the Environment is currently weighing a new permit to govern how the dam owner must manage water flow over the next dozen years.

The permit, expected to be issued by the end of the year, has been the focus of a months-long debate because the lake and river waters are the lifeblood of the economy in Garrett County, a remote part of the state with few remaining industries. Wherever the water flows, it draws with it tourism dollars, whether they’re tied to recreation with speedboats and jet skis, tackle and lures, or rafts and paddles.

The environmental agency’s John Grace said the state will have to weigh the impacts on both sides of the dam before issuing a final permit. Advocates for the lake and the river will get one more chance to share their concerns publicly at an Oct. 15 hearing at Garrett College in McHenry.

“It’s a really challenging situation to make everyone totally happy,” said Grace, chief of the source protection and appropriations division of the state water supply program. “I don’t think that’s realistic, but I think it’s realistic for us to be consistent and follow our mission.”

A string of wet or wet-enough years has prevented much conflict for the past six or seven years. But those who see the potential for it know it could be just a dry season away.

Drought has developed rapidly across parts of Maryland in recent weeks, and all of Garrett County and the surrounding area is considered “abnormally dry,” a precursor to drought. A relatively small 62-square-mile watershed feeds Deep Creek, so Grace said the lake’s fortunes can change quickly, for better or worse.

As population and development spread around the area, Neil Jacobs said, he’s prepared for more conflicts like this one. The McHenry resident and angler said he expects there will only be more need to share water resources in the future.

“There’s going to be some pain," he said. “Everyone’s going to have to take a little pain.”

To residents, many of whom spend summers or weekends there but live elsewhere in Maryland and Pennsylvania, lake access is paramount. Development has been building around the lake ever since its creation, when the Deep Creek was impounded to power the hydroelectric station that began operating in 1925 and is now owned by Brookfield Renewable Power.

Concerns about low lake levels last appeared in 2012, the area’s third dry year in four. It prompted the Deep Creek Watershed Foundation, a nonprofit group, to commission research that found significant potential impacts to water access.

The lake’s surface currently lies at an elevation of about 2,458½ feet, though it’s often higher in the summer. Just six inches below that level, 2,458 feet, about 9% of the lake’s 2,200 boat slips lose access to water, said David Myerberg, the foundation’s president. At two feet lower, 2,456 feet, 15% are affected.

But in some southern coves, the impact is more pronounced, with more than half of boat slips inaccessible when the lake surface lies at 2,457 feet or lower, Myerberg said.

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That’s why property owners are concerned about proposals from trout fishery advocates and managers to potentially increase the amount of water released for the sake of the fish.

From the perspective of anglers and biologists, the lake water is what helps to maintain viability of what is one of Maryland’s most popular stocked trout fisheries. Water released from Deep Creek lake travels about 2 miles down through a tunnel to the power plant beside the Youghiogheny, known by most as the Yough (it rhymes with Bach).

Rising temperatures and the loss of shade caused by deforestation mean that in the late summer, Youghiogheny waters often reach 77 degrees, the upper limit of habitability for trout. When that happens, about a dozen times a month during the summer, on average, Brookfield’s permit requires it to release cool water from the bottom of the lake.

To address concerns that waters could warm to that threshold more frequently, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources proposed that Brookfield be required to start any necessary temperature-related releases two weeks earlier in the spring and continue them two weeks later in the fall. They also suggested that releases occur even if the river is flowing at levels high enough that, in the past, water temperatures rarely reached the danger zone for trout.

John Mullican, field operations manager for the department’s freshwater fisheries program, said it’s important to maintain favorable conditions for the fish, or the state could risk losing valuable tourism.

“Once they’re reduced, it takes years for that to recover, if it can recover,” he said.

Residents, organized under the Property Owners’ Association of Deep Creek Lake, have countered with requests that the temperature-related releases use less water, or that Brookfield cut back on whitewater rapid-related releases when necessary to prevent significant reductions in water. They have also pressed for more evidence that fish-related water releases are actually necessary.

“We don’t think the argument has been made to support the need,” said Paul Weiler, the group’s president. “Did anybody do a fish kill count?”

Some tweaks to Brookfield’s permit have been less controversial. Whitewater rafters asked to shift some dam releases from Fridays to Saturdays in April, and to squeeze in extra Saturday releases when water levels allow. A section of the river known as the Upper Yough that runs downstream of the Brookfield facility north toward the town of Friendsville is popular with kayakers and rafting companies.

“These few changes will have a great impact on the whitewater boating and the commercial rafting industry with very little impact on lake levels,” Roger Zbel, owner of Precision Rafting Expeditions in Friendsville, wrote in an e-mail to Brookfield officials earlier this year.

Andy Davis, a spokesman for Brookfield, said the Canadian company is open to changes so long as its facility can keep producing the 20 megawatts of electricity it is capable of generating.

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“We can’t predict the future,” Davis said. “If people want more releases, it’s going to depend on how much water there is.”

Myerberg, of the lake watershed foundation, said the group isn’t taking a position in the debate, but that any changes will have to reflect compromise.

“We want to be fair to all the people who use the water,” he said. “That’s not just the people who use the water when it’s in the lake.”

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