THE NATION'S RIVER
A report on the Potomac from the U.S. Department of the Interior, with recommendations for action by the Federal Interdepartmental Task Force on the Potomac.
LETTERS OF TRANSMITTAL
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY WASHINGTON, D.C. 20240
October 1, 1968
Dear Mr. President
The enclosed report, The Nation's River, is submitted in response to your February 8, 1965, request that we prepare a program for your consideration which would assure that the Potomac would serve as a model of scenic and recreation values for the entire country.
This is the final report of your Potomac planning team. In my opinion, the study contributes significantly to a more complete understanding of both the opportunities and the problems of this magnificent river. The proposed program of action, when implemented, will move the area a long step forward toward the challenging goals identified in your directive.
Your call for a broadly based conservation plan for the Potomac has stimulated a wide range of useful actions by citizens' groups and by the Federal, State and local governments during the course of our studies. While these are too numerous to recite, the participation and involvement of citizens in decisions affecting the future of the Basin are most promising and deserve recognition and encouragement.
Our recommendations for action cover three broad aspects:
... those related to present and future water resource problems in the Basin; ... those related to the protection and restoration of the Basin's scenic and natural assets; ... those to ensure that future planning and action will proceed in a wise and coordinated manner.
I call particular attention to the following recommendations:
... to protect the mainstem Potomac River and its banks from Washington to Cumberland, Maryland, and to make it accessible to the public, the report calls for prompt legislative authorization, funding and establishment of a Potomac National River consisting of Federal, State and local components. The proposed legislation to establish the Potomac National River which you sent to the Congress on March 6, 1968, and which was introduced as S. 3157, is based on the new and exciting concept that the urgent objectives of Potomac River conservation can and should be accomplished through cooperative action by all levels of government;
... to achieve the water-quality goals established as State standards, the report recommends coordination of Federal, State and local powers to achieve the waste treatment measures required, within five years, and effective action toward meeting similar requirements in handling wastes at all Federal establishments in the Basin. It calls, also, for immediate reconvening of the 1957 Enforcement Conference on the Potomac to focus attention on the timetables for controlling pollution in the estuary;
... to provide a measure of drought insurance, the report calls for early completion of Bloomington Dam and Reservoir;
... to meet growing needs for municipal and industrial water to achieve anticipated economic growth in upstream areas, the report identified six reservoirs which are consistent with other aspects of the report. The river management afforded by operation of the reservoirs could also meet the water supply needs of the Washington metropolitan area for at least 20 years. The report urges continuing research and study of alternative sources for the metropolitan area supply, including use of the upper estuary to meet critical short-term demands;
... to assure continuity of comprehensive planning and management, the report recognizes the need to mobilize the skills and authorities of all levels of government and support therefore by alert and informed citizens and citizen groups. The Governors of the Basin States and the District of Columbia have proposed a Federal-Interstate Compact for the Potomac and arranged to have a draft prepared by the Potomac River Basin Advisory Committee. The Water Resources Council will continue to work with the States in this effort—anticipating that proposals will emerge which merit both State and Federal support.
Your assignment, Mr. President, has been exciting and challenging. We hope that our effort has contributed to achieving your dreams for this magnificent valley.
Secretary of the Interior
The President The White House Washington, D.C.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY WASHINGTON, D.C. 20240
October 1, 1968
Dear Mr. Secretary:
Since early February 1965, when President Johnson asked you to develop a program which would make the Potomac "a model of scenic and recreation values", there has been a continuing joint effort to achieve this exciting objective.
The Interdepartmental Task Force, which you and your fellow Cabinet officers established, has coordinated the Federal effort. When the four Basin State Governors and the Commissioner of the District of Columbia acted to establish the Potomac River Basin Advisory Committee, we had a genuine opportunity to achieve useful and effective Federal-State cooperative relationships. As you know, our two groups have worked together in a cordial and productive way.
We have listened carefully to the views of individual citizens and citizen groups in a real effort to sense the needs and aspirations of the people who live in the valley and the millions who visit our Nation's Capital and the historic and beautiful Potomac valley. Publication of an Interim Report two years ago proved to be a useful means for obtaining citizen participation.
This report summarizes a series of studies made in response to the President's directive. Although it is our final report, we urge that it be looked upon as the next step in a continuing planning process. It points to action to meet present and near-term needs and to the desirability of continued planning to provide sound bases for the further resource-use decisions which citizens of the Basin will be called upon to make as those decisions become more timely.
The body of the report is a Department of the Interior document, couched whenever possible in nontechnical language in the hope that it may find a wide lay readership. The program for action, which constitutes the final chapter, is concurred in by the Federal agencies on the Interdepartmental Task Force. Comments of the Potomac River Basin Advisory Committee are set forth in the attached letter from its Chairman, Mr. James J. O'Donnell. Responsibility for leadership in proceeding with the proposed actions is identified, as appropriate, to specific Federal agencies, States or local governmental entities.
Other reports have been or will be issued which form integral parts of this endeavor. These include the following:
Potomac Interim Report to the President—January 1966 ... The Creek and The City—Urban Pressures on a Natural Stream—Rock Creek Park and Metropolitan Washington—January 1967 ... The Potomac—The Report of the Potomac Planning Task Force—Assembled by the American Institute of Architects—September 1967 ... Report of the Chief of Engineers, United States Army Corps of Engineers, Potomac River Basin, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia (This report, now in the process of official review, will provide a basis for action on water supply and related matters.)
In addition to the published documents, each of the four Sub-Task Forces established by the Interdepartmental Task Force prepared reports which constituted invaluable working documents on several aspects of Potomac Basin planning. These include the following:
Report of the Water Supply and Flood Control Sub-Task Force ... Report of the Water Quality Sub-Task Force ... Report of the Sedimentation and Erosion Sub-Task Force ... Report of the Recreation and Landscape Sub-Task Force.
Copies of these working documents will be distributed to concerned local, State and Federal agencies and will be on file in those offices.
You will note particularly that the attached report emphasizes the urgent need for a continuing and broadly based planning effort. If we are to fully achieve the objective of making the Potomac a model, and we must, resource planning and management must mobilize the authorities and the skills of the Federal Government, the States, the local jurisdictions and the citizens. I am convinced that the Potomac Basin needs:
... an alert, active, basinwide citizen organization with the perspective to see the area's total needs and the determination to make certain that action is taken to meet those requirements;
... a formally established relationship between the various levels of government to continue comprehensive planning—and to make certain that action at all levels is consistent with the established objectives.
Kenneth Holum Assistant Secretary
Honorable Stewart L. Udall, Secretary Department of the Interior Washington, D.C. 20240
POTOMAC RIVER BASIN ADVISORY COMMITTEE 1025 VERMONT AVENUE, N.W., WASHINGTON, D.C. 20005
MARYLAND PENNSYLVANIA VIRGINIA WEST VIRGINIA DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
September 15, 1968
Dear Mr. Holum,
The Potomac River Basin Advisory Committee was pleased to have the opportunity to review the recommendations compiled by the Federal Interdepartmental Task Force for inclusion in the forthcoming Report to the President. These recommendations represent the culmination of intensive studies in the areas of water supply and flood control, water quality, sedimentation and erosion, and landscape and recreation. As such, they are of the utmost significance to the people of the Potomac River Basin.
We note in particular that the recommendations
(a) Highlight today's most pressing problems and propose feasible solutions;
(b) Recognize the interrelationship of the separate needs of the urban and rural areas of the Basin, and propose action by federal, state and local governments;
(c) Specifically consider the economic growth of the Basin in relation to water resources development; and
(d) Emphasize the need for an intergovernmental organization, along the lines of the proposed Potomac River Basin Compact, which would have continuing responsibilities for the planning and development of the Potomac River Basin.
During the past two years the Advisory Committee has focused attention on preparation of a draft of a proposed interstate-federal compact which has been submitted to the governments and the people within the Potomac River Basin for comment. We believe that an interstate-federal agency for the planning, development and management of the Potomac, envisaged by the Compact, offers by far the most promising opportunity for the people of the Basin to guide the water resources development of the Potomac, and for the implementation of many of the Report's recommendations.
The Advisory Committee wishes to commend the Federal Interdepartmental Task Force for the constructive and imaginative manner in which this difficult assignment has been carried out. The Committee wishes also to thank you for the opportunity of being associated with the work of the Task Force through our state observers.
As representatives of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, we shall recommend that our heads of government, the legislatures, and the state and local agencies accord the most careful consideration to this report.
James J. O'Donnell, Chairman Potomac River Basin Advisory Committee
Honorable Kenneth Holum Assistant Secretary Department of the Interior Washington, D.C. 20240
THE RIVER IN TIME 8 I THE WAY THINGS ARE 15 II TOWARD A MORE USEFUL RIVER 23 III THE CLEANSING OF THE WATERS 39 IV A GOOD PLACE TO BE 65 V COMPLEXITIES AND PRIORITIES 93 VI THE NATION'S RIVER—AN ACTION PLAN 105
Transcriber's note: Obvious printer errors have been corrected. All other inconstencies in spelling or punctuation are as in the original.
THE RIVER IN TIME
Time, abetted by man and nature, has changed the face of the Nation's River. Nature's rains, snows, ice and floods continually carve the shores. Man, also, changes the Potomac through man-made fills, walls, docks, bridges and piers. The arbitrary changes by man and nature have reached the point where careful planning and consideration must be given to the river's future in order to preserve its majestic beauty as The Nation's River.
I THE WAY THINGS ARE
With good reason, people sometimes claim that the Potomac has been studied more often and more thoroughly than any other American stream. Its intimacy with the national capital at Washington and with great figures and events of our history have centered much American interest on it. In many ways it is a classic Eastern river, copious and scenic, that drains some 15,000 square miles of varied, historic, and often striking landscape, from the green mountains along the Allegheny Front to the sultry lowlands of the estuary's shores where the earliest plantations were established among the Indian tribes. It has tributaries large and small whose names echo with connotations for American ears—the Shenandoah, the Monocacy, the Saint Mary's, Antietam Creek, Bull Run....
And it has long been the subject for debate and discussion over how it may best be handled to serve man's ends, for in common with other rivers in civilized regions it has developed problems of pollution, of landscape destruction, of occasional floods, of impending shortages of water for its basin's increasing population. Out of the debates have emerged studies and plans, some fragmentary and some whole, some specialized and some general. This present report concerns the latest study, made under the leadership of Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall according to a directive given him by President Johnson in 1965. The report is "final" only in that it sums up this study. It is by no means final in terms of the Potomac, for it points toward future action and continuing study and planning, and an important part of its function will be to show why a degree of inconclusiveness in such matters is necessary and desirable.
Within a remarkably few years after Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac estuary in 1608 to assess its treasures and to make the acquaintance of the Algonquian tribesmen whose villages flourished on either shore, other vigorous white men came there to stay, on both the Maryland and Virginia sides. In the century that followed they raced and leapfrogged one another upriver, elbowing the Indians out, and with the aid of indentured labor and later of African slaves they helped to shape the Tidewater tobacco civilization that engendered so many future leaders of the American republic. Near the head of navigation, shipping centers grew up—among them Alexandria and Georgetown, forerunners of the metropolis that bestrides the river at the Fall Line today. Above there in the upper Piedmont, and then across the Blue Ridge in the Great Valley, the westering waves of migrant English met other waves of Scotch-Irish and the Germans coming down from Pennsylvania, and before the American Revolution the combined breeds of men had built up enough pressure to push Indians almost entirely out of the Potomac Basin and to occupy all the good farmland, even in the Basin's ridged western areas.
Since then their successors have used the land for farming and for other purposes. In using it they have changed it, and the changes have registered in the river system that drains it. For land, water, vegetation, wildlife, minerals, and men's habits are not separable from one another in the natural frame. So that if the early planters, using methods of hoe tillage scarcely less primitive than those of the Indians, mined the Tidewater soils for tobacco production in a way that required new fields every few years, one result was that those soils tired and thinned and finally stopped supporting the social magnificence that had grown up there, for production and prosperity moved inland and west. And another result was that the Potomac estuary itself grew shallower and different with the silt that washed down off the land, and many a tributary bay that once served as harbor for oceangoing ships is now a rich, reedy marsh with a single narrow gut of shoal water wandering down across it to the Potomac.
And if later generations of men cut down the forests on the mountains in the western Basin, and fire followed the cutting, thousands of years of soil washed down from those slopes too to change both mountains and river, and elk and panther vanished. And if along the Potomac's North Branch there was once a fine coal boom, there is now the boom's legacy in the form of gray dour towns and dark sad streams corrosive with mine acids.
And if old Alexandria and Georgetown and all the land around them have burgeoned into one of the nation's great cities, there has been a price to pay for that also. The stately upper estuary on which they front is often turbid with silt and sometimes emerald green with algae nourished on sewage and other septic riches, and the hills stretching back from the river are spiky with tall buildings linked by urban and suburban clutter, where life lacks the natural elbow room that the old Tidewater folk—planters and yeomen and bondsmen and slaves alike—were able to take for granted.
These are facets of an Age of Problems, of course. They and other related troubles have been growing apace lately as men have grown in numbers, in the demands they make on the natural environment that shaped and nourished their species, and in their technological power to enforce those demands. The troubles pose a threat to men of flavorlessness and grayness and the loss of essential meanings, a threat of diminished humanity. For dependence on that environment, intricate and deep-rooted, psychological as well as physical, has not grown less with the human advance toward power and sophistication.
Yet in the Potomac Basin as a whole the threat so far is mainly still a threat, not a reality. Where men's employment of the land has been reasonable, as it has in the Great Valley almost from the start, the land not only remains useful and pleasant but has a specific traditional beauty dependent on man's presence. Where new comprehension of the processes of destruction has been attained and shared, as in soil conservation and forestry and such fields, much damage done in the past has been repaired.
Most of the Potomac river system's flowing waters are unnaturally polluted to one degree or another, but only in spots does the pollution even approach the sort of poisonous hopelessness to be found along some more heavily populated and industrialized American rivers, and on the Potomac its spread is already being slowed. Water shortages loom, but have not yet seriously materialized. Floods threaten, but only at certain definable spots. Human beings boom outward from the Washington metropolis and the other centers of population in search of a fuller life, and the consumptive sprawl and sameness of the communities built to receive them often deny it to them. But in modern terms there are not really enormous numbers of them yet, and for their pleasure and fulfillment a great deal of varied and handsome and historic landscape has been more or less preserved, by design or happy accident.
The Potomac Basin, in other words, is still generally a wholesome place two-thirds of the way through the 20th century. If it gets the protection it deserves, and is developed thoughtfully and decently to meet men's demands upon its resources, it can stay a wholesome place into the indefinite future.
* * * * *
Water pollution was the first Basinwide problem to make itself thoroughly evident, and the need to deal with it led to the first Basinwide activities besides studies. Soil conservation practices for sediment control were instituted in the 1930's, and in 1940 the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, often called INCOPOT, was formed by compact among the four Basin States and the District of Columbia, with the formal permission of Congress. INCOPOT's powers are only advisory in relation to State and community action against pollution, and it has never been generously financed. But during the quarter-century of its existence it has developed a wise combination of investigation, persuasion, and public education to fight this problem, with the result that on the Potomac conditions have in some ways actually improved during a period of wars and booms and haphazard urban expansion when many other rivers were headed straight down to stinking corruption.
In 1956 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was directed by Congress to undertake a Basinwide study to develop a plan for flood control and the conservation of water resources and related land resources. The emphasis in this assignment was upon a full long-term functional solution for the Basin's water problems in feasible economic and technological terms. In carrying it out, the Army enlisted the aid of other Federal agencies, and their Potomac River Basin Report, published in nine volumes in 1963, presented the study's results and a plan for Basin water development to meet needs to the year 2010. It is a monumental piece of work to which anyone concerned with the Basin henceforth will have to refer, because of the completeness with which it examines the Potomac water resource and the careful technical knowledge it brings to bear on Potomac problems.
However, the plan it presents—including recommendations for sixteen major multipurpose reservoirs on the Potomac and its tributaries—would bring about a massive and permanent revision of the free-flowing stream system and would inundate much valley land. It aroused articulate opposition at local, state, and Congressional levels, a good deal of which was focused on the key Seneca dam on the Potomac main stem just above Washington—an area where earlier single proposals for dams, first at Great Falls and then at River Bend, had provoked similar resistance.
Clearly enough, a powerful continuing body of opinion cares about something more than strictly functional values along the Potomac and in its Basin. It is a long-settled region, whose natives generally cherish what they have in the way of scenic and historic amenities. It is the part-time home of many influential lawmakers, who concern themselves about its beauty and well-being. And together with the national capital at the core of its metropolis, it is the vacation goal of millions of American tourists from elsewhere each year, who go home aware not only of monuments and marble halls of state but of crucial Civil War battlefields, dark mountain ridges overlooking classic river valleys, rolling Piedmont estates, and the wooded headlands of Virginia and Maryland that recede behind one another into haze as one looks down the estuary in summertime.
This national interest in the river was recognized publicly early in 1965 by President Johnson when, in connection with his noted "Message on Natural Beauty," he issued directives to Secretary Udall making him responsible for the preparation of a conservation plan for the Potomac. In addition to the tasks of cleaning up the river, assuring an adequate water supply for the decades ahead, and providing flood protection, the Secretary was instructed to protect the natural beauty of the river and its Basin and to plan for full recreational opportunities there for both natives and visitors. A stipulated aim, which seized the public imagination, was to make the Potomac a model of scenic and recreational values for the entire nation.
In response, the Secretary shaped a Federal Interdepartmental Task Force under Interior direction, in whose specialized sub-task forces were enlisted the skills available in the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (where the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration was then located), and the various concerned bureaus and services of the Interior Department itself. Shortly after this, Secretary Udall met with the governors of the four Basin States and the commissioners of the District of Columbia to ensure that State and local interests would have a hand in the planning process. Out of this came the Potomac River Basin Advisory Committee, composed of State and District representatives, which has conferred often with the Interdepartmental Task Force on overall questions and has assumed prime responsibility in studying the central problem of creating a planning and administrative body to handle Potomac water and related land problems hereafter.
In addition, a blue-ribbon panel of distinguished planners and specialists, assembled by the former president of the American Institute of Architects at Secretary Udall's request and subsequently known as the Potomac Planning Task Force, undertook a separate study of Potomac questions, both in general and with specific focus on the metropolis. Their independent report, The Potomac, was lately published. It makes a detailed, wise, and instructive plea for considering the river and its landscape as a whole and meaningful thing, for proceeding with their development and protection according to high esthetic and ecological principles, and for a distinctive form of management.
Existing private, public, and semipublic organizations with an interest in the Potomac or in the type of problems it presents have joined in the present effort by sponsoring public meetings and publishing discussions or otherwise doing their part to help. Among them may be mentioned INCOPOT, the Conservation Foundation, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government, Resources for the Future, Inc., the League of Women Voters, the Potomac Basin Center, the National Parks Association, and a number of local planning or action bodies. Through these meetings and other media, public comment on the Federal Task Force's work has been voluminous and often helpful, particularly since the publication of its Interim Report in January of 1966, which made certain proposals for immediate action to begin providing for short-term metropolitan water needs, to protect specific scenic treasures, and to get moving on the long task of cleaning up the river.
With so many viewpoints somehow included in the planning process, opinions have often diverged as to how much of what ought to be done about the Potomac, and how soon, and in what order. Well they may diverge. In a time of economic expansion and population growth unparalleled in human history, predictions about the economy and the population of the distant future—necessary to full planning—verge perilously near to crystal gazing even when the best available yardsticks are applied. And this is only one uncertainty. Among the others which will be examined later in this report are the prospect of drastic technological change that may soon offer cheaper, more effective, and less disruptive ways of dealing with environmental problems including water; the doubtfulness of sufficient public money for large conservation projects in a time of international tensions and urban crisis; and the solid American political complexity of the boundary-laced Potomac Basin, which bristles with various forms of veto power and a multiplicity of assorted regional, professional, and philosophical viewpoints.
Such complexities and uncertainties have a powerful reality and relevance for planners. They impose a need for breadth of view, for leaving many future options open, and by the same token they present a danger of piecemeal action, excessive compromise and indecisiveness.
The body of this report is an Interior Department document, couched wherever possible in untechnical language in the hope that it may find a wide lay readership. Necessary technical supporting material mainly has been or will be made available in separate form. The report examines environmental problems in the Potomac Basin and possible solutions for them. Its underlying emphasis is ecological, based in a conviction that man's own good is heavily dependent on the good of the earth in all its complexity. No one at this point in time, obviously, is going to be able to reconstitute the primeval Paleolithic world, nor would many people want to. The earth has changed with people in their long surge toward dominion over its ways and its creatures. But there is a difference between adaptive change and the degeneration that modern times are forcing on the earth men have always known. Growing millions of people are coming to consider that human beings' right to see and know woods and plains and mountains and streams and coasts in a cleanly and decent condition—whether primitive or adapted in one way or another to man's use—together with the communities of wild creatures that belong there, is quite as practical and urgent as their right to usable tap water or to a share in the Gross National Product. For upon the retention of these ancient realities future human sanity and wholeness may well depend.
We who are responsible for this report believe that this point of view is going to gain enough strength and political acceptance to become one of the motive forces of this century. Already it has much power. Even though many established attitudes, laws, and practices are still firmly rooted in the old exploitative, often heroic urge to seize upon all resources and put them to use at whatever ultimate cost, disgust over pollution and the destruction of beautiful places is getting to be a political factor to be reckoned with at all levels of government. So is concern over man's lemminglike multiplication in numbers and the way his technology and his expansionism are gobbling up things quiet and graceful and eternal—things he needs. It seems certain that political "muscle" and respectability for the legitimate conservationist viewpoint is shaping up fast enough that it will be able to dissipate the worst threats—the grabbing and the spoiling, the ignorance and the archaic attitudes, the onward shove of brute technology for technology's own sake rather than for man's—before they have forced mankind on into the gray sterility of life that would be their ultimate effect.
And upon the emerging potency of this sound and urgent concern with the way the natural world is being used up, we believe a flexible form of planning can be based that will do away with the dilemma posed by the complexities and uncertainties of the moment. With a minimum of compromise, such planning will be able to identify and propose solutions for immediate problems in places like the Potomac Basin, while moving toward longrun solutions for other problems as those problems' dimensions become clearer than at present, and as technology and politics make better solutions feasible.
Solutions for pressing and immediate problems have to be in terms of present possibilities—political, financial, and technological. Some such immediate problems—of water supply, pollution control, and scenic preservation—exist in the Potomac Basin and are analyzed in this report, and presently feasible action is recommended for their alleviation. A considerable part of the report is concerned with such problems, with the range of possible solutions for them and with our reasons for making specific recommendations.
These immediate solutions do not constitute what has been called a "quick fix"—piecemeal, one-shot action to patch up things until another crisis arises. As much as possible, they have been worked into the picture of longterm Basin needs insofar as those needs can be discerned, and it is intended that action against future problems shall be built upon them. Furthermore, we have sought to maintain an ample view in identifying long-term difficulties and indicating what should be aimed for when it is essential to act against them.
But we have not shaped a rigidly complete, prescriptive plan identifying exact measures for the cure of all present and future ills of the Potomac Basin. For a variety of reasons, we have concluded that such a rigid plan would not only be self-defeating in the long run, but that it is actually undesirable. We are aware that this conclusion is going to arouse criticism among those who during the past three years have consistently demanded that we provide a total answer, for the purpose either of unseating the governing principles of the 1963 plan or of reinforcing and amplifying those principles. Nevertheless we are certain that the conclusion is right.
It would be right even if the development of new technology were the only uncertainty confronting planners. Barring a complete breakdown in the present impetus of research and discovery, radical change in the technology of water supply and water quality control appears to be extremely probable within the next few decades. Some of the best of the emerging tools, there is reason to hope, may permit men to deal with water problems in ways that are more harmonious with natural ways and less structurally imposing than present methods. Possibly the present, often essential reliance on large storage reservoirs, for instance, is going to be modified, though how much the ultimate way of doing things will have to combine old and new technologies is something that cannot be guessed.
If it cannot yet be guessed, it cannot be incorporated in a rigid plan, which has to deal in technological certainties—i.e. in present technology—and must therefore impose that present technology on the future, whether or not the future is going to need it. If we are right in believing that from this generation on, people are going to be increasingly jealous in the preservation of their natural heritage, future Americans will not be likely to thank this generation for having unnecessarily robbed them of choices as to how to handle the streamwaters of a superb river basin like the Potomac's. Any more than they would thank us for having done nothing at all and leaving them to scramble for water, and filthy water at that. Quite simply, no one has the right to do either of these things to them.
It is our belief that if genuinely conservationist values are established as the ruling principles in a flexible, properly paced, continuing planning process, there will be no need to fear that future generations are going to be either stuck with large mistakes on our part, or cursed with shortages, floods, and pollution. With this report we hope to initiate such a process for the Potomac.
II TOWARD A MORE USEFUL RIVER
If the Potomac has been much studied, it has nevertheless been subjected to only meager "development" over the centuries of its service to civilized men. Most past attempts to alter it significantly for man's use have either failed or have not led to lasting results, though their changing purposes over the years summarize, to a degree, America's shifting attitudes toward the utility of flowing water. Early projects under George Washington and others to assure the navigability of the main river above the Fall Line, which they saw as an artery for eastward and westward currents of trade, left only some quaint ruined locks and flowing bypass canals around falls and rapids. The later C. & O. Canal, which ran alongside the river and was replenished by its water above occasional low dams, required over two decades of toil and death and heavy expense to complete upriver to Cumberland, Maryland, which it reached in 1850. There had been some public opposition to the project and it was never a great success even after completion, for the railroad era had begun and the Canal suffered periodic heavy damage from Potomac floods, being finally abandoned to picturesque decay after a mighty inundation in 1924.
Largely because of a stalemate between public and private power advocates, the early 20th century heyday of small-scale hydroelectric power development of rivers mainly missed the Potomac, though at one time a power company acquired land at Great Falls in anticipation of such development. Other modern water projects in the Basin have been relatively modest or have run afoul of strong opposition. Therefore, today a sprinkling of small channel power dams and water intake structures, some levees and improved creek channels, and a few unimposing reservoirs of various sizes and types high up on small tributaries are the sum total of the development to which the Potomac water resource has been lastingly subjected, if we disregard for the moment its waste disposal function and the maintenance of navigation in its estuary.
In general this is undoubtedly a fortunate thing, for the application of modern technology to rivers in the past half-century of our national growth has not always had happy results. "A river," Justice Holmes once wrote, "is more than an amenity, it is a treasure." His feeling is shared by thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who live along the Potomac and its tributaries or who go there to float down them in bass time, to picnic and swim, to hunt, to dig into the region's history, or just to listen to the purl of green water against the rough stonework of a ruined bridge pier. Deteriorated though a few stretches may presently be, these rivers are still treasures.
The lack of development also presents planners with a fairly clean slate on which to write. In terms of water, few massive human mistakes confront them except the pollution of the upper estuary and certain other reaches like the afflicted North Branch. Therefore they can begin more or less from scratch and can usually find various choices for action against the water problems of the Basin—against pollution, against flood damages, and against impending or existing shortages of water for municipal and industrial use.
Though for clarity in discussion we need to classify these various kinds of problems separately, in practice they do not so neatly divide from one another. Nor do they divide from the way the land in the Basin is used or from the pleasure and fulfillment people find in the outdoors. If a region's use of a stream's water is heavy in a dry August, for instance, whatever pollution the stream gets below towns and factories will be more concentrated and damaging than if the stream were flowing well. Pollution itself can affect the utility of water as well as people's enjoyment of it in a stream. A creek watershed that has been ignorantly farmed or roughly assaulted with bulldozers for urban development is an eyesore of erosive destruction, unproductive of crops, wildlife, or poetic appreciation, and can cause both heavier stream flooding in time of storm and lower flow in time of drought by the way its disruption alters the normal behavior of rainwater. The silt that storms wash off of it is not only a major ugly pollutant of flowing water below that point but can complicate flooding and bank-cutting and navigation and other things by settling out into bars and shoals in still stretches, including reservoirs.
All of these things, and others as well, have to be considered together as parts of a whole problem. And that problem is that men's hugely increasing numbers and their multiplying technological power over their environment have made it necessary to readjust the balances somewhat in great natural units like river basins—to restore, manage, and protect them in such a way as to be able to hand them over decent and whole and useful to the people who come after.
Problems of Water Supply in the Potomac Basin
Wisely handled, the water that runs annually through the streams of the Potomac river system can be counted on to satisfy any demands that people there are likely to make on it in present times or during the foreseeable future. More than 2-1/2 trillion gallons of fresh water normally flow down the Potomac in a year. It would be pleasant to believe that this means that the natural and unassisted river system is going to continue to serve human needs in the future as it has served them heretofore—that after cleaning up the network of streams and ensuring against their repollution and the desecration of their landscape, men will be able to leave them respectfully alone to run down toward the Chesapeake Bay as they have run during and before human memory.
However, it is not so. Whatever human population might be considered ecologically tolerable under natural conditions for the nine million or so acres of earth, rocks, vegetation, and water that make up the Basin, it has long since been exceeded by hundreds on hundreds of thousands. And if those who predict such things are right, it is going to be exceeded much further in the near and middle future. Today's approximately 3.5 million Basin inhabitants are expected to double by the turn of the century, with accompanying complex shifts in the ways they will be making their livings and in the numbers of them who will live in the country as compared with the cities and towns. Thereafter, further geometric increases are contemplated, calmly by some contemplators and less so by others.
As a result of past and present populations and their activities, conditions in the Basin—including the river system—are necessarily far from natural, for specific structural development is not the only form of change. The Potomac environment has been adapted to man's use, and in places where that use has been unreasonable it is already in trouble. Clearly it is going to have to be manipulated artificially to some extent to meet people's demands on it and to guard it against the worst effects of their numbers. In fact, very luckily, it already is being so manipulated in dozens of ways ranging from methods of farming and forest management to sewage treatment. It is possible to hope that present population forecasts may somehow find less than ample fulfillment, but it is not possible to count on it for planning purposes. Nor is it possible to wish out of existence situations already serious.
At times during the hot months of drouthy 1966, the climax of a dry cycle that had begun to develop five years earlier, the Washington metropolis was not too far from the bottom of its water barrel. The situation was not as bad as in some other Northeastern regions, nor as bad as some local analyses claimed, but it was bad enough. The highest daily withdrawal of the year was on June 26, when the metropolitan water intakes in the Potomac sucked out approximately 380 million gallons. Of this some 30 million gallons had to do with a pumping pattern pertinent to adjustments within the system, and the other 350 million went for the use and refreshment of a metropolis afflicted by summer's heat. The total figure represented less than half of the river's flow at that time.
For a couple of days in September, however, the Potomac's flow reached an all-time low of about 390 million gallons a day. Even if the demand on those days had risen as high as in June, which it did not, there would still have been an excess, but not a very safe one. Heavy storms shortly thereafter eased the situation, and rainfall since then has definitely broken the long drought pattern, returning stream and groundwater levels to normal.
The sober fact is that the Washington metropolis is nearing the point where its traditional main dependence on the Potomac's free and fluctuating flow for water supply—with supplementary quantities from Occoquan Creek, the Patuxent, and a few wells—is not going to work during prolonged dry periods. Total flow even in a drought year remains impressive, but dependable daily flow—which is what counts for supply—varies tremendously.
Other centers of population in the Basin are up against water supply problems or are going to come up against them shortly. The towns and industries along the North Branch, around Cumberland and upstream, are strongly aware of a water need complicated by the deep-seated pollution of their stream system and the scenic and economic disruption of their watershed lands. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a handsome town in a prosperous farming district of the northern Great Valley, is approaching a critical point in the relationship between the water available to it and its demands. Far south in the Valley, Augusta County, Virginia, which contains the thriving towns of Staunton and Waynesboro, is experiencing an upward surge of industrial development that seems certain to continue and is going to call for a great deal more water than can be counted on from present sources. Public awareness of this is shown by the fact that county citizens voted in a referendum in November of 1966 in favor of construction of a Federal reservoir at Verona near Staunton on the Middle River, which had been strongly opposed when it was presented as a part of the Army 1963 plan.
On the Monocacy in Maryland's Piedmont, the old agricultural center of Frederick has begun to come under the changeful, expansive influence of Megalopolis as a result of easier access from both Baltimore and Washington, and has been brought abruptly face to face with a looming water shortage. Recent studies by the Maryland Department of Water Resources indicate that the dependable flow of the Monocacy will not serve the town for more than another seven or eight years even if the flow needed to maintain adequate water quality is left out of account, and the summers of 1965 and 1966 made even those figures seem slightly optimistic. Both city and State have declared themselves in favor of an upstream major reservoir at Sixes Bridge, also a 1963 proposal. And elsewhere throughout the Basin, a good number of smaller places face similar dilemmas.
Except for acid mine drainage, most of the Basin's main problems are found at metropolitan Washington. Because they are primarily people problems and more people live there than anywhere else, the problems tend to be bigger, including that of water supply. A conceivable shortage of several tens of millions of gallons of water per day within the near future is not a small shortage, and small measures are not going to cope with it.
A number of possible measures have been considered and weighed. Some seem undesirable for one reason or another, even in terms of the distant future. Others are unusable now, but have promise for later, when more is known, or technological processes involved have been perfected, or cost have been brought within reason. Still others, undoubtedly, cannot even yet be discerned. And some will work now at prices that can be paid. Ultimately, it seems certain, the super-Metropolis of the future will depend on a mix of sources for its water, getting part of it by one means and part of it by another and so on, as technology makes new means possible, and as economy, safety, and other factors may dictate. Therefore, there is no single "right" answer for the long run, and an attempt to prescribe one inflexibly would compound confusion over the years and undoubtedly perpetrate an injustice on future citizens in ways already mentioned. We need to do them the favor of believing that they will be able to cope with their own immediate problems at least as well as we can do it for them, and probably in ways better suited to their tastes.
Nevertheless, it is imperative that the city be given a margin of drought insurance for two decades or more, and for this margin some source definitely feasible in present terms must be identified and guaranteed.
Going outside the Basin for any significant part of the metropolitan water supply does not appear to be justified. Some water is presently being drawn from impoundments on the Patuxent just north of the city, but no more of it can be counted on. Diversion from the voluminous Susquehanna much farther north is feasible from an engineering standpoint. But the cost of it would be relatively high, and there are also certain strong objections in principle, based on the facts that the Potomac does have plenty of water and there is no inherent moral advantage in transferring the question of development elsewhere, that the Susquehanna Basin may well need its own water at some future time, and that the ecological effects of such diversion on the immensely valuable fisheries of Chesapeake Bay, which are dependent in large part on a shifting balance of salinities maintained by the tributary rivers, are unclear.
"Planned scarcity" of water in a community, wherein administrators and public alike accept the certainty that during dry times lawns and parks and golf courses and sometimes human skins will have to do without the application of water for a spell, is a reality of life in some arid regions and is probably always going to be. Elsewhere it is, or should be, an element in the design planning of industries that use heavy quantities of water for cooling and such processes. All water supply planning must consider it, for to build against any conceivable shortage would be prohibitively expensive. Pricing of water so as to cut down on waste without curtailing ample legitimate use may well be a longrun tool, as has been suggested. But in terms of general municipal and industrial water, any great degree of calculated shortage hardly seems appropriate for a humid-zone city which has a fine river at its doorstep and happens also to be the national capital, so that a scarcity would be of national concern in a number of ways. Federally established and maintained parks and open spaces, for instance, with their carefully tended vegetation, would be one of the first things to suffer.
Desalting of sea water, another reality now in arid zones and one of immense importance, has a certain degree of planned scarcity built into it by way of its price, at least at present. Some people believe that in time this process will be refined to the point that it can furnish abundant cheap water to all the world's seacoast cities. Certainly as it develops it may well have a potential for marginal drought-proofing at Washington, an emergency source to be drawn upon if needed. But the day seems distant when it will be truly competitive in price with riverine sources in regions of adequate rainfall.
Inland arid regions and perhaps other places as well are undoubtedly going to find one answer to water shortages in the recirculation of their treated waste waters through municipal systems. In one form or another such recirculation is already working at certain places in the United States on an emergency basis, and its full potential for industrial use has yet to be explored. However, the indications are that towns' and cities' reliance on it during anything but temporary emergency conditions is going to depend on expensive methods of refinement and "fail-safe" overdesign, plus dilution with new water, which means again that it will probably not be competitive in price with natural water where enough good natural water can be had. To this may be added the observation that the consuming public presently has a few definite lingering qualms about the idea involved, particularly if there is other water around.
The underground rocks and sands of the Basin hold huge reserves of water with a fundamental relationship to the whole river system, whose basic dependable sources lie in these aquifers' outflow to the surface. Around the metropolis, some ground water is being taken from wells even now to supplement the overall supply and to satisfy the whole demand of any number of outlying communities. Though locally available quantities are limited and pumping costs rather high, such wells will undoubtedly be highly useful for future extensions of the metropolis, especially into the Coastal Plain.
There is also much promise in studies of the Basin's aquifers being carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey to determine detailed patterns of their contribution of water to the stream system and to see if it can be regulated and made even more useful. Such a possibility has great implications in terms of augmenting river flows both for water quality control and water supply, and could mean much at Washington. So could certain techniques of deliberate drawdown of aquifers to induce recharge with excess surface waters or sometimes treated sewage effluent, also presently under study. Ground water as a source has some unique advantages—among them a minimum of evaporation loss, less need for surface structures, and protection against catastrophic contamination—and it deserves full exploration, though it cannot at present be counted on as a significant part of the answer for the metropolis.
Far out, though possibly not very far off in time, is the likelihood that future water planners will be able to count on some degree of control over a given region's rainfall and snow. Through experimentation, this subject is rapidly being excised from the mists of superstition that once surrounded it, and the Department of the Interior has an active program of research and study in the West, with tremendous implications. But, yet again, present planning cannot take it into account except in the sense that, along with some of the other technologies already mentioned and undoubtedly others that have not yet even emerged to view, it adds to the near certainty that future planners are going to have a much wider range of alternative methods at their disposal, to choose from and mix as may seem best. And this, in turn, reemphasizes the wisdom of flexibility in present planning and the need to keep big irreversible decisions to a minimum.
The upper Potomac estuary from Little Falls down to the vicinity of Marshall Hall and Mount Vernon or below contains a great deal of fresh water, an accumulation made up of inflows from the river above the Fall Line, local storm runoff and tributary flows, and treated sewage returned to the tidal river. The volume of this water that would be available for use without salinity has been variously estimated. At low tide, there would be 9 billion gallons of fresh water in the upper estuary from Chain Bridge to the mouth of the Anacostia River; In the 10 mile stretch from Chain Bridge to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains treatment plant, 15 billion gallons; and, from Chain Bridge to the saltwater front near Indian Head, Maryland, 100 billion gallons. Most of the time now it is afflicted with heavy pollution, as will be detailed in the next chapter of this report. But it does constitute a large natural reservoir of potentially usable municipal and industrial water, whose attractiveness for these purposes, as well as for all others, will grow steadily as the pollution is brought under better and better control. These facts have led some opponents of any and all major reservoirs in the Basin to conclude that the water in the upper estuary is a presently satisfactory reserve with which to face any foreseeable metropolitan shortage of supply from the upper Potomac.
The assumption has strong appeal, but it appears to be too risky to serve as a basis for adequate present planning to meet looming demands. That even now the water in the estuary's uppermost reaches, above the main metropolitan treatment-plant outfalls, would be usable for short emergencies by the installation of relatively simple pumping equipment below the falls, cannot be doubted. That in the long run the major part of the freshwater tidal river at and below Washington is likely to be a valuable source of metropolitan water, maybe a principal source, is quite possible. Its use is and will be a strong consideration in longterm planning—another good reason, in fact, for flexibility. But the truth is that right now enough doubt and ignorance exist in regard to its exact potentiality that it should not be counted on to provide a safe margin of supply under all conceivable conditions during the next twenty years or so, for which planning provisions need to be more rigid and definite.
The doubts and unknown factors have to do mainly with the quality of this water, which comes under discussion later. In abridged summary of relevant facts at this point, it may be observed that unless all sewage and sewage effluents were collected and diverted to points well beyond the limits of the upper estuary, use of its water for periods beyond a few days of emergency would become essentially a form of recirculation of waste waters—with, at this time, the main drawbacks that we noted in regard to that process and certain others besides. For, under the low-flow conditions that would bring about its use, the effluents in the river below the mouth of the Anacostia would penetrate upstream as water was pulled out below the falls and would reach the pumps in fairly short order, probably moving in a tongue up the main channel.
With the radical improvement in the functioning of the metropolitan treatment plants that must be achieved, and other measures to relieve pollution in this part of the river, valid objections to such recirculation will of course weaken and ultimately disappear. But no one can reasonably expect that these things are not going to take a certain amount of time—quite conceivably enough time to run the city up against an emergency it could not handle without other, more standard sources of auxiliary water. Besides the matter of consolidating and improving treatment of collectible wastes, there are certain other diffuse and stubborn sources of pollution, as will be seen, for which good counter measures simply do not yet exist—among them are surface runoff during local storms and overflow from combined sewer systems.
If the collectible wastes were diverted out of the upper estuary and if it proved possible to cope quickly with other pollution or to ignore it, during prolonged use salt water penetration from downstream would take place as fresh water was withdrawn above and not replaced. Studies on a mathematical model of the estuary indicate that under conditions that could materialize, this would make the water at the intake too salty for use. A barrier dam across the entire estuary at one or another point in the freshwater section could prevent such penetration, but would be hugely expensive and undoubtedly more obtrusive on a much-used part of the riverscape than most upstream reservoirs could possibly be.
Furthermore, even if all these doubts and areas of ignorance were to be easily resolved, insistence that the upper estuary is the only logical answer to metropolitan Washington's water problem ignores the fact that major water demands are building fast in certain already-mentioned areas of the upper Basin, and that, since the Basin is a hydrological unit, measures to satisfy these demands can easily, economically, and quite logically be designed to furnish a good part of the metropolis' near-future safe margin of water supply as well.
A need for vigorous research specifically directed toward exploring all these alternative means of supply is evident. If it moves fast enough and the knowledge that comes out of it is made available to planners, it may very quickly make a great difference in the kinds of sources of water they can turn to for the solution of problems, just as studies since the early 1960's, when the Army work on the Potomac was completed, have altered prevalent ideas about pollution control through flow augmentation, and have therefore greatly diminished the overall amount of water considered necessary to meet the Basin's demands.
In the crucial meantime, the established certainty of storage in reservoirs is available. In river basins with reasonable annual amounts of precipitation but with human demands on streams that sometimes exceed the rate at which water flows down, such reservoirs are still usually the most dependable and efficient item in the present technology of water supply. And since they generally have other purposes to which proportionate shares of construction costs are assigned in individual cases—flood protection, water quality control, navigation, hydroelectric power, recreation, silt detention, etcetera—they tend often to be the most economic sources of big quantities of water. In one form or another they have been built from very ancient times, and they have been indispensable to the useful development of water resources in our expansive economy.
In parts of the United States far from sea-coasts or large natural lakes, reservoirs built for water supply and other purposes have become the focus of enormously popular forms of recreation that would otherwise be impossible in those regions—sailing and motorboating and water-skiing and the sort of fishing possible only on big water, and such things. Properly designed and located, they can be beautiful bodies of water, as the vacation homes that grow up around many of them testify.
Strong objections to them also frequently are voiced. They are one of the most massive manifestations of man's technological ability to adapt natural processes to his use, and they sometimes have profound effects on fish and wildlife and the whole ecology of a stream system region, to the dismay of many conservationists. Often too they flood out large areas of riverbottom farmland and other private property, arousing the ire of some rural folk and small townsmen who feel that their interests have been sacrificed to the water or flood-protection demands of downstream city dwellers. Opponents of major dams sometimes assert that many of them have been built not to meet real hydrological needs but to foster economic development which may or may not materialize and may or may not be worth the loss of natural or scenic or agricultural resources disrupted by the reservoirs. Other thinkers, not necessarily against reservoirs in general, express a doubt that the potential effects of specific structures are always thought out sufficiently beforehand. Among these are the authors of a recent publication of the National Academy of Sciences—National Research Council, Alternatives in Water Management:
"We create great reservoirs that stop the migration of fish and then provide costly fishways, hatcheries, and other devices to maintain the fishery, and with no certainty of success. We impound water without knowing the effects of that impoundment on its quality. We build an irrigation project and then find salinity increasing dangerously in the river downstream. We eliminate high-flood peaks by reservoir storage, but downstream from some reservoirs we see unpredicted erosion, sedimentation, bank-cutting, and other effects, even unto, as in California, the loss of beaches along the seacoast, starved of their supply of sand."
The list of objections could be extended—and often is by objectors—to a point of pettiness. Nevertheless, the main doubts are gaining much acceptance and are imperatively having to be taken into account more and more these days, as new elements of water technology and philosophy—some of them mentioned earlier in this chapter, others to emerge in subsequent discussions—come closer to full feasibility and become a part of general human knowledge. Delay in building reservoirs until it is certain they are needed is on the verge of becoming a respectable element in planning, and in the future dams may well become merely one of many ways to guarantee water and handle it. At least some water authorities, though certainly not all, have voiced the opinion that most present reservoirs will some day serve primarily for recreation, if emerging new principles of water supply, water quality improvement, flood protection, power generation, and such things attain general use.
That day, however, has not yet dawned, nor is the interim before its arrival calculable. It is necessary to face present reality with present tools, and the reality at the Washington metropolis and elsewhere in the Basin is that a good deal of water is going to be needed rather soon, and that no reasonably economic alternatives with any clear esthetic and ecological advantage over reservoirs are presently available to furnish it.
Nor, if planners and designers are aware of the whole set of problems, do reservoirs necessarily have to be weighty in their impact on the natural scene and the public interest. The quantities of stored water needed for the Basin's near future are relatively modest in comparison to potential supplies, and a multitude of good reservoir sites exist to be chosen from. There is no reason why, with present knowledge, a minimum of necessary reservoirs cannot be planned and designed for a maximum of beauty and pleasure. It is a notable fact that a very large number of Americans prefer boating and fishing and other aquatic sports on reservoirs to any other form of recreation, and another notable fact that in the upper Potomac Basin there are very few places where even small numbers of Americans can thus indulge themselves at present.
In terms of metropolitan Washington's water supply, considered apart from other Basin water problems, the best reservoir site by far in the whole Potomac drainage would be the old River Bend site or the one proposed in 1963 at Seneca, both just upstream from the Falls above the metropolis. In one package, either of them would impound enough water to take care of any likely municipal and industrial demands of the metropolitan region for more than a half-century, besides trapping most silt from upstream to keep it out of the estuary, and providing a good measure of protection for flood-susceptible metropolitan shores. Furthermore, the proximity of such a reservoir to the city would ensure a great deal of aquatic recreation for people there and would somewhat simplify water management problems.
Thus, it is natural that Seneca, the latter proposal of the two, has found strong champions among metropolitan administrators, water engineers, and planners whose thinking has to be primarily in terms of sure and efficient water supply and flood protection. It has found equally strong opponents, however, enough of them to have stalled it to date. It is not yet dead, for it emerges in each new discussion of the city's water situation. It will not be dead until the metropolitan water problem, short-term and long-term both, has found a full satisfactory solution in other terms.
Our feeling remains unchanged since the publication of our Interim Report: that when all factors are weighed and future uncertainties are taken into account, Seneca should not be built at this time. If the price in money would not be high in relation to immediate "market" advantages gained, the permanent price, in river and countryside and those other intangibles that are getting to have more and more weight in men's minds year by year, would be heavy.
The full main stem Potomac, carrying the water from the combined North and South Branches and the Shenandoah and the other upper tributaries down through the Blue Ridge water gap and across the rolling Piedmont and the Fall Line, is at its most typical in the 39 miles from Harpers Ferry to Great Falls. Seneca as originally proposed would inundate 35 miles of this stretch, together with islands and bottomlands, forests of big hardwoods, meadows and productive fields, and that much-used segment of the publicly owned C. & O. Canal, with the trail along its wooded towpath. Even reduced in size and designed as strictly a water supply structure, it would have many of the same effects. There is special and tranquil beauty in this piece of the river, which makes a fine float trip and is much fished, as well as a lot of historical significance dating back to the Senecas and the Piscataways and before. Here these things are not forgotten and removed from men's reach but are available to metropolitans who go to the trouble to seek them out, as many do. Nor is there anything else around to take their exact or even approximate place if they were gone.
It has been pointed out that if the metropolis grows according to predictions, a major part of that growth is going to be upriver, and the main stem of the Potomac will have the same relationship to the metropolis of the future that Rock Creek has to the Washington of today. Thus the decision that is made about the main stem in our generation is similar to the decision that planners had to make about Rock Creek three-quarters of a century or more ago. Those planners decided magnificently well, bequeathing to the future an urban stream and park unique in this country and perhaps the world, a treasure that the public is presently defending against other, newer, subtler threats than mere damming or encroachment.
A reservoir above Seneca clearly could not mean that sort of thing. It would be a useful lake, but devoid of the changeless tone of the Potomac as it flows there now. The reservoir's proper functioning would require fluctuations in its level, with occasional ugliness at the shoreline, and if it would permit a great deal of happy water-skiing and flat-water fishing, the same opportunities are going to be available to Washingtonians in the nearby estuary when it is suitably cleaned up, even though the section immediately adjacent to the metropolis may take a good while to bring up to swimming standards.
In terms of the overall good of the people of the metropolis and the Basin and the country, the water situation at Washington now and during the near future hardly bears a desperate enough aspect to warrant the sacrifice of much of the main flowing river to a reservoir which, like the freshwater estuary, could not be meshed with upstream needs but would serve only the urban areas at and below the Fall Line. Conceivably at some future time, if technology should renege on its promise to bring forth good new alternatives, and population pressures continue to grow, the city may badly need a reservoir there. It is a uniquely valuable site. For that reason, we repeat our Interim proposal that the reservoir site, minimally defined, be preserved against the mass encroachment with which it is imminently threatened, and be utilized principally as part of a major park complex protecting the river and its shores. To defer irreversible decisions and to leave them as much as possible to future generations whose conditions of life and desires we cannot predict with accuracy, can be a principal way of maintaining freedom of choice.
In the category of reservoirs, at the other end of the spectrum are the comparatively small headwater dams that the Soil Conservation Service has been designing and supervising for three decades in authorized watersheds throughout the country. These structures can serve several functions and can furnish for small watershed areas and small centers of population many of the benefits that the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation dams furnish for large areas. On their own scale, they are vulnerable to some of the same objections that are aimed at large reservoirs. But the scale is smaller; they tend to be less imposing and pre-emptive of good land than big river dams, "catch the water where it falls" to hold it for local use and to alleviate local flooding, and are backed up by erosion control practices in a program that has proved to be one of the best available stimulants to good land use. For these reasons they have appeal for many rural people and conservationists.
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However, the conclusion which some of their supporters have reached is that if only enough of the small dams could be built throughout the headwater areas of a river basin, they would eliminate the need for most other forms of water management, leveling out flood and drought flows and holding a great aggregate amount of water on tap for use anywhere down the line. At times in the past, the controversy between supporters of big dams and supporters of little dams achieved the proportions of a bloodless war, but after a good many years of testing and observation it is now generally agreed by hydrologists that both have their place and that the most appropriate focus for the small dams' functioning is local.
At any rate, they are not an answer for Washington's problems. Even if enough of them were installed specifically to provide the storage volume needed for metropolitan use, the question of operation—ensuring and coordinating releases from a large number of places at varying long distance upstream from the point of intended use, in such a way as to make the required volumes of water arrive at the right time, without waste—would be very difficult even with much more sophisticated and expensive design than these structures customarily have. Without it the problem would be insuperable.
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Thus, for metropolitan Washington's water in the near reaches of the future, some reservoir storage is indicated with fewer ecological, recreational, and scenic drawbacks than a Potomac main stem dam, and more efficiency for massive supply than the small headwater structures. Since the Potomac river system is a unit, with the metropolis at the downstream end of its non-tidal part, water stored anywhere in the upper Basin can be released for use there. This gives much freedom of choice in the selection of sites for reservoirs and in the combination of releases from various places to make up an adequate total supply, though obviously good management will be needed to coordinate the releases and avoid the waste of water.
It also means, if good principles of river-basin management are followed, that reservoirs to supply water at Washington can be located and designed so as to satisfy major upstream demands at the same time, and that they can be fitted in with regional and Basin needs for water quality improvement, flat water recreation, and in some places flood protection. In such conjunctive planning, based in the Basin's physical unity, commencing now and continuing on into the future as new needs and new ways of satisfying them come to view, lies the main hope of developing the Potomac water resource in such a way as to avoid waste of money, waste of water itself, and waste of the landscape and the general environment. Without it, nothing can result but a piecemeal haggling to bits of the river system as local demands grow acute and local pressures force the adoption of one-shot measures. With it, towns and areas and industries can be guided toward sensible and thrifty action that fits in with the wellbeing of the whole Potomac region—toward buying a share in the water of a rightly designed, rightly placed reservoir large or small, toward development of ground water resources where these are adequate, toward the use of new technology that may be feasible and suitable.
The range of choices is certain to enlarge with time, and the ease with which right choices can be made. In this computer age, mathematical models of river systems, including the Potomac, are at work manipulating hydrological data and quickly indicating optimum coordinated solutions for given water problems that formerly would have taken many weeks to solve, if indeed men could have arrived at such exact solutions at all. Computers are no better than the material that is fed them, however, and the need for new water data—for facts—is acute, if computers and the men who run them and the policy makers to whom they report are to pick the best ways of doing things. So is the need for means of giving "intangible" values their right weight in the whole process. But the computers are the keystone of the new technology and they are going to make right coordination simpler.
With coordination also, as we shall see hereafter, there is the strongest possibility of getting the river system clean again and keeping it that way, and furthermore of vouchsafing some measure of protection to the landscape through which it flows. For the physical unity of a river basin has many implications, and not the least of them is that the people who live there can be guaranteed at least a physical chance to lead full and wholesome lives.
Water supply for upstream areas of the Basin, then, is not a separate thing from water supply for the downstream metropolis and should not be treated as separate. They are all drinking from the same fountain. Where an upstream demand is great enough or is going to be great enough in a short span of years to warrant major storage, that storage must be keyed in with all other demands that it might meet or help to meet, including that at Washington. Where an area of lesser need is shut off by its location from sharing in such major storage, groundwater development or headwater reservoirs may well be the answer, but these measures too should be made to serve as many purposes as may be required for the protection of the area's whole range of interests and the good of the entire Basin. The need for such interweaving—for coordination, for planning and action that are unified—is primary, and will emerge again and again.
Flooding in the Basin
The subject of floods is fraught with more drama than that of water shortages, for a flood can be not only a hardship but a catastrophe. For this reason, accounts of floods tend sometimes toward exaggeration, and appeals and proposals for protection against flood threats often take on the highpitched tones of impending disaster. The subject badly needs sober public understanding, despite the fact that for decades a good many knowledgeable scientists and engineers and planners have been laying out their conclusions for general perusal.
Rivers are supposed to run out of their banks occasionally. Topographically, stream flood plains—the expanses of flat bottomland that have been deposited over long periods of geological time by the streams they border—are similar to what legal terminology calls "attractive nuisances." Men have always known that they were dangerous and yet have always utilized them to some degree, because they contain the best farm land, are convenient to water, and are easier places in which to build houses and factories and roads than are the safer hills and uplands.
In times before engineering technology was able to erect such effective control structures as today, populations who had lived along "flashy" watercourses long enough to learn their habits tended to build their more valuable structures back away from the parts of the flood plain that got wet most often, leaving those parts for cropland and timber, or sometimes for shacktown, promenades, and parks. Thus long-settled countries and regions have often developed through trial and error a degree of what is now called "passive flood protection," which simply means recognizing that the flood plain is sometimes a rather perilous place, and treating it accordingly. It was valid in past ages, and it is still valid today.
The Potomac Basin has been inhabited by civilized men since long before modern engineering evolved. Possibly early town-builders' wariness of floods contributed to the fact that the problem of flood damages here, though quite real, is somewhat less severe than in certain other sections of the nation. At specific points of concentrated flood plain development—Petersburg, W. Va., on the South Branch; Cumberland, Md., and the areas upstream from it on the North Branch; and metropolitan Washington at the head of the estuary—figures show significant amounts of average annual destruction by rampaging stream waters. In headwater areas or small urban watersheds scattered throughout the Basin, there are a number of other places where some damage takes place, whether agricultural or structural. The total average annual damages for the Basin, as computed in the 1963 Army Report, amount to about $8.6 million.
Along small streams, whether urban or rural, the same principles apply as along large ones, and the proper protective measures are similar if smaller in scale. Leaving the worst parts of the flood plain in fields or parks is the usual and effective form of passive protection. Where existing development demands structural measures, it has been common practice to cover streams over as sewers or to confine them to straightened concrete channels that sluice rainwater and mud away as fast as they will flow—though often this is not fast enough, as is shown by occasional messy and costly overflows of Four Mile Run between Arlington and Alexandria. And the loss of pleasant brooks and creeks through such practices is a heavy price to pay.
More and more often lately in such cases, a combination of some passive protection with the small headwater dams that "catch the water where it falls" and soil conservation measures to protect the watershed lands above the reservoirs, has proved to be a better solution. This is what has been done in the Rock Creek watershed in the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Md., and its value was shown during the heavy rains of September 1966. Here stream valley parks have given passive protection for a long tune, though the popularity and heavy use of the parks have caused a big investment in picnic areas, playgrounds, and other facilities, which themselves have often suffered expensive flood damages. As a result of long effort by a watershed association, two S. C. S. dams had been finished shortly before the September flood at the only useful sites on the creek's upper branches that rapidly spreading residential development had left available. They kept runoff from the big sudden rains entirely in hand in Maryland and reduced damage in the Federal park in the District to a point far below what it would have been without them.
Ideally, of course, such planning should be done before heavy development, and a pilot urban watershed program of this sort is being undertaken in the Pohick Creek basin on the metropolitan fringe in Fairfax County, Virginia. With freedom to locate necessary structures in the right places and to protect them against silt and ruinous runoff by requiring good land treatment and a sensible distribution of buildings, pavements, and wooded or grassy open space, planners there ought to get good flood protection while preserving a pretty valley and stream for the people who will be living in the neighborhood. From any number of standpoints, this is vastly preferable to the more usual traditional procedure of letting growth run wild and then trying to cope with trouble when it comes up.
The headwater dams are equally effective in reducing flood damages in small rural watersheds where losses warrant their installation. But even on a massive scale of installation they have little influence on downstream flooding along the main rivers. In such places—at Cumberland, Petersburg, and the Washington metropolis, and at certain other river towns where less damage occurs—other measures are going to have to be selected and applied in each individual case according to costs and benefits, physical possibilities, and the best interests of the region.
Cumberland and the lesser damage centers on the North Branch are scheduled for the classic engineering solution of big dams upstream. The existing Savage River reservoir, finished in 1950, has cut down flooding notably in that area, and a dam at Bloomington above Westernport, already authorized by Congress, will relieve it still more, as well as fitting into the complex clean-up task along the North Branch and furnishing water for local and Washington use.
The 1963 plan proposed similar protection for metropolitan Washington and for Petersburg, West Virginia, in the form of major reservoirs at Seneca and Royal Glen. Physically and culturally, there is very little similarity between the two communities, but their flood situations and the potential effects of the proposed protective structures have a certain kinship.
At both places there has been development of the flood plain, with the result that damages occur when the communities' respective rivers get out of their banks. In relation to its size—around 2000 people—Petersburg is subject to much heavier trouble of this sort than the metropolis. It sits near the head of the lovely narrow farming valley through which the main downstream South Branch flows, a few miles below the point where two principal forks of the river join after rushing out of the mountains. In June of 1949, a flood there claimed five lives around Petersburg and three at Moorefield downriver, where still another main fork comes in, and wrought major destruction through the neighborhood.
The 1963 Army Report calculated Petersburg's average annual flood damages at over $200,000, and advocated construction of a $30 million, multipurpose reservoir at Royal Glen just upstream from Petersburg, to do away with most of the damage and to permit further industrial development of the flood plain, as well as to provide a great deal of water for downstream use and for regional recreation. People and groups in the area with interests standing to benefit from the reservoir were naturally in favor of it. Under present Federal policy—which will be mentioned again—its flood-protective function would cost them nothing, whereas levees or other locally effective approaches would demand a good deal of local effort and outlay, besides disrupting the town's aspect and its relationship to the river.
Opposition developed also. The very name of Royal Glen suggests the scenic qualities of the country roundabout. As at Seneca, a dam here would flood out some country with unique scenic and recreational values, including the famous Smoke Hole Gorge down which the clean South Branch runs between steep mountains dotted with caves and flavored with the quiet simplicity of the life that isolated hill folk lived there up into modern times. It is a section much appreciated by whitewater canoeists and hikers and horsemen and others from that region and elsewhere, who care about rugged and unspoiled places. Despite its remoteness, the proposal that it be inundated aroused more vigorously hostile comment among conservationists and nature lovers in general than perhaps any other item in the Army program except Seneca. The State of West Virginia declared itself opposed to the project, and to date has maintained that position.
Again like Seneca, the Royal Glen site does have certain unique advantages for use as a reservoir. But, as at Seneca also, its functional virtues do not appear to be nearly so unique as those of the scenery and natural values whose obliteration would be a heavy part of the reservoir's price. In 1965, the immense scenic value of a large part of the country it would wipe out was recognized by its inclusion in the big Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. It is strongly to be hoped that that recognition is never withdrawn.
The issue of scenic destruction at both Royal Glen and Seneca tends to obscure another set of even more basically relevant considerations having to do with the whole question of flood plain occupancy and use, the extent to which those who benefit from it should share the cost of such protection as may be necessary, and possible ways of reversing a present trend toward inexorably larger national flood damages each year despite ever larger and more expensive structural protective measures at public expense.
It is a complex subject that can only be summarized here. What it amounts to is that America has strayed too far from the ancient hard-won wisdom of treating flood plains with respect. It has been lulled by the achievements of engineering, encouraged by a general absence of inadequacy of State and local planning that takes such matters into account, and conditioned to a set of Federal laws and policies piece-built over a long period of time, with consequent inequities, imbalances, and loopholes that tend to emphasize structural protection at Federal expense for indiscriminate flood plain development. The result has been a neglect of the possibilities of flood plain management, which undoubtedly in the long run—as in the long past—will prove to be the most valuable tool for reducing these damages, for it will bring about a restriction on ill-advised and uneconomic encroachment in these streamside areas.
The reason most such encroachment is bad, with or without a dam upstream, with or without levees, is that it establishes the certainty of further and larger flood damages in the future, with the certainty of further and larger expenditures to combat them. It has been pointed out that no such thing really exists as flood control, but only a given degree of flood protection. Economics and technology dictate that reservoir capacities devoted to the storage of flood water, for example, be considerably smaller than the maximum runoff conceivably possible. This means that sooner or later there is going to be a great flood against which the reservoir or reservoirs will not suffice. If the reservoirs' presence, as is most often the case, has directly encouraged a lot of flood plain speculation and construction downstream, then the great flood is going to do more damage than was ever done before, and more reservoirs and other protective measures, most often Federally financed, are going to be demanded, at a price that rises sharply as less desirable sites and methods have to be employed, and with frequently catastrophic scenic effects. These considerations apply to small watersheds as well as large ones.
This costly cycle, which frequently makes the general public pay both in tax money and the sacrifice of amenities to protect the investment of a relatively few who profit from the wrong kind of flood plain use—in plain words, makes the public subsidize their ventures—has established itself widely. In some places, of course, certain kinds of development can take place only on the flood plain, and planning for its structural protection may be amply warranted, with equitable cost-sharing. But the difference between this sort of flood plain use and the much more common, thoughtless, quick-profit type needs to be more widely recognized and established in policies at all levels of government. The subject has been much studied. In August 1966 the findings of a distinguished Task Force on Federal Flood Control Policy, which made detailed recommendations for injecting some sense into the situation, were submitted to the attention of Congress by President Johnson. At the same time, he issued Executive Order 11296 on the subject, directing all Federal executive agencies with influence in such matters to do everything possible to discourage uneconomic and unwarranted use of the nation's flood plains. This, of course, includes the present Potomac planning effort.