MOUNT AIRY — County officials presented a citizens group with a grim outlook for the future of the proposed Gillis Falls Reservoir, but attached a fewrays of hope to the ominous report.
The county commissioners and county planners told the Gillis Falls Reservoir Citizens Committee about their latest meetings with state and federal officials in the effort to gain approval for the reservoir. Responses from environmental agencies and the governor's staff have been mostly bleak, they told the gathering, which included about 15 residents, at the Mount Olive United Methodist Church last night.
"We're living in a very complex time," said Planning Director Edmund R. "Ned" Cueman, referring to stringent environmental regulationsthat have become obstacles to the planned 430-acre reservoir. "Undertaking any project like this is excruciatingly complex. Nationwide, it's a bad climate for getting reservoirs."
The project, planned for about 20 years and recommended by a consultant as the most desirable water source for South Carroll to the year 2040 and beyond, is jeopardized because its construction would disrupt about 177 acres of wetlands and disturb a natural trout stream. Mitigating those circumstances is difficult and expensive under state and federal law, and exemptions are hard to justify.
This summer, county officials have met with the Environmental Protection Agency and several state departments to determine the status of the project and what could be done to improve the chances for permit approvals. One common suggestion was to withdraw the application so it would not be rejected, thus tainting the project's chances in the future, the commissioners said.
"We want to hold on a little longer, overturn all stones," Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said. "We don't want to withdraw at this point if there'sany chance we can go through with it."
On the positive side, the commissioners emphasized that about 95 percent of the land required for the project has been acquired. State officials advised purchasing the rest of the needed land, they said.
"We are not defeated at all," Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy said.
"We've done a good thing forfuture generations. You don't lose the land."
He said the county has invested too much time and money to give up on the project.
Commissioner President Donald I. Dell said he is optimistic about the project and said "things change with time."
"When we're down to ourlast breath, maybe they'll finally say that these people are more important than fish," he said.
Cueman said he believes some adjustments must be made in environmental regulations for the project to gainapproval.
The commissioners said they hope some of those changes will come as the federal government considers redefining wetlands.
"If that's made less restrictive, we'd have a chance," Gouge said.
The commissioners say they want to build the reservoir, estimated to cost nearly $30 million, so the county will not have to rely on outside jurisdictions for a South Carroll water supply. A ground water system for the region is not the most cost-effective or practical option, they say. The reservoir would be created northeast of Mount Airy.
A consultant for the county said water demands in Mount Airy willoutstrip supply in the near future, while demands in the Freedom-Sykesville area could exceed supply by 2010.