By Liz Beavers
Tribune Managing Editor
JENNINGS RANDOLPH LAKE - People taking advantage of the recreational opportunities along the North Branch of the Potomac in the area of Barnum and beyond are now a little safer thanks to a new early-warning system put into place at Jennings Randolph Lake.
The warning system, which consists of a siren that sounds for a duration of three minutes and can be heard for several miles away, will alert visitors downstream of the lake that water levels are about to be higher than normal.
Before, during scheduled whitewater releases or flooding events, those fishing, swimming or kayaking in the area had to be notified in person by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rangers or dam personnel, and sudden water flow increases have occasionally resulted in people either being stranded on the other side of the river, where there is no access road, or almost being swept away.
Suddenly rising waters can be especially dangerous to those who wade out into a normally placid river to cast their fishing lines. A sudden rise in shin-deep water can make it hard or impossible to navigate if it suddenly becomes calf-deep or higher.
Now, when the new siren sounds, those fishermen are being told to get out of the water immediately.
"When you hear it, vacate!" lake operations project manager Ken Fernandez emphasized.
The warning system is mostly geared toward those fishing, floating or swimming in the river, and although helpful to kayakers, they will not be asked to vacate if it sounds.
"We’re not telling boaters to get out of the river," head dam operator Gary Kalbaugh said.
Kalbaugh said the new warning system will be invaluable both to those those working in the recreational areas and those enjoying the rugged mountain terrain.
He remembers a time a few years ago when a heavy rain several miles upstream from the dam caused the water level to rise quickly, forcing them to release water several times into the river.
He had to drive to the river, warn any visitors he could find of the impending increase in water flow, drive back to the dam to take measurements and prepare for another release, then back to the river again to warn any visitors he might have missed the first time.
This was done several times within the day.
Kalbaugh said the new alarm, which is situated on the riverbank at Barnum, will alleviate that problem, although personnel still control the system manually and will still be on hand for added safety.
"Public safety is the Army Corps’ absolute priority," Fernandez said. "Jennings Randolph is authorized for multiple purposes, and this new warning system ensures continued safe recreation for our visitors and communities downstream of the lake."
When the siren goes off, it sounds at a high frequency for approximately six seconds, followed by a low frequency at six seconds.
This is the universal alert sound for high water, Kalbaugh said.
To advise people of the new system and to leave the river immediately if the siren sounds, large red warning signs have been placed around the recreation and downstream areas.
To keep the system functional, lake staff will conduct monthly maintenance on the system, which will include a cleaning inspection, systems check, and test of the siren. The test sound will be at a lower frequency than the actual warning siren, but personnel are still advising visitors to vacate the river "out of an abundance of caution" whenever they hear it.
The Corps of Engineers Baltimore District Water Management team provides a public website with a recorded message that is updated at least once each day, including the current and three-day forecast for anticipated releases from Jennings Randolph and Savage River dams. The Corps highly recommends all recreational users monitor the three-day forecast website or call 410-962-7687 to obtain updated release information.
The Jennings Randolph Lake project controls a drainage area of 263 square miles, reducing flood risks to several communities downstream. Water releases from Jennings Randolph dam serve multiple purposes, including flood risk management, water quality, water supply, environmental stewardship and recreation. Most commonly, the need for releases comes following rainfall.