Bottleneck in the Big Inch?

May 13, 1994

Harford County's thirst for water supplies seemed to be well satisfied when it agreed in 1992 to obtain up to 30 million gallons a day from Baltimore City's share of the Susquehanna River flow.

That new water source will meet decades of future growth, and also assures supplies for current demands. Harford's present need to tap Baltimore's Big Inch pipeline to the Susquehanna was emphasized by the discovery of chemical pollution in two major wells serving the county system.

Huge carbon filters were installed on these wells, located on the Aberdeen Proving Ground, to trap the chemicals and clean water is again flowing into county pipelines. But concerns remain about future underground seepage from the Army's testing facility, as well as questions about the long-term cost and efficacy of the remedial system.

The county's $20 million treatment plant near Abingdon, which will receive the Big Inch flow, is expected to be finished this summer. The initial raw water deliveries to Harford's new plant, however, will come from the city's Loch Raven Reservoir, where cheaper gravity-flow can be used instead of electric pumping from the Big Inch.

Now the county's agreement with Baltimore has been thrown into question by the interstate Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which claims that it should have reviewed any such resale agreement made by the city.

The commission, made up of representatives from Maryland, Pennsylvania and the federal government, asserts the right to approve any consumption of river water of more than 20,000 gallons a day. Although the state law authorizing the Baltimore-Harford water supply accord was made 16 years before the commission was created, the Susquehanna Basin body is sticking to its guns.

The result could be a messy legal dispute benefiting no one. Baltimore says it will not submit an application (and thus appear to waive its grandfathered rights to draw 250 million gallons a day from the river) but will make a "presentation" of the Harford water sale agreement.

We urge the commission to accept this gesture, for there is no reason to deny Harford its long-expected water supply, secured in a good faith agreement. Maryland certainly would not have joined the Susquehanna compact had this kind of legalistic revisionism been anticipated. Let the commission do its job, without indulging in arrogant displays of questionable authority that do not advance its mission to protect the Susquehanna.

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