City presses its claim to water Tristate panel to rule on Baltimore's access to the Susquehanna

June 18, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

One of the biggest water fights in the nation will be played out tomorrow in Pennsylvania when a tristate commission is expected to declare its control over Baltimore's access to the Susquehanna River basin.

The coveted resource has little impact on current water use in the region, but Baltimore officials view the battle as critical to future development in the five surrounding counties. All are served to some degree by the municipal system, which is helping to expand housing development further into suburbia.

At issue is whether Baltimore can maintain unrestricted access to the Susquehanna. The city claims the right to draw 250 million gallons a day -- enough to supply the 100,000-gallon per year use in 2,272 homes, or 8.3 million household showers a year.

The source is a 90-foot-deep pool north of the Conowingo hydroelectric dam that straddles the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, where the city built a water intake system in 1960.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, composed of representatives from the Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania state governments, was created a decade later to regulate use of the waterway. It is siding with Pennsylvania farmers, power companies and other public water suppliers in calling for a faucet to be placed on Baltimore's future flow.

"That quantity could have a significant impact on the region if the city draws down on it," commission spokeswoman Susan Obleski said yesterday. "It is a very big issue for the commission and a very important issue for Baltimore."

The source of the dispute along the Mason-Dixon line dates to 1925, when Baltimore entered an agreement with the Susquehanna Power Co. to with-draw water from what is now known as the Conowingo Pool. Over the years, the city has exercised its right, using the water supply primarily as a backup source through its 33-mile intake pipeline.

Today, the Baltimore system serves about 1.6 million people in the city and metropolitan counties with an average output of 280 million gallons of water per day -- nearly all supplied by the city's three suburban reservoirs of Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty.

Alarm over Baltimore's potential use rose after a 1993 commission study showed that the city would need to begin tapping the Conowingo Pool to the tune of 50 million gallons per day by the year 2003 in order to keep up with growing regional development.

For example, the city has an agreement to sell 20 million gallons a day to fast-growing Harford County. By the year 2025, the commission estimates, the city will need 360 million gallons of water per day to handle the region's growth, an assertion city leaders reject.

"The city will continue with its expanded study of water usage opportunities and will also continue to cooperate with and address the concerns of the commission regarding water withdrawals," former city solicitor Neil M. Janey wrote in a response last week to the commission.

The Conowingo Pool is already used by the Chester (Pa.) Water Authority, Peach Bottom nuclear power plant and Muddy Run Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project in Lancaster County, Pa., all of which abide by the commission's regulations. For example, Chester draws 30 million gallons of water per day at a cost of 14 cents per 1,000 gallons.

Lawyers for Baltimore argue that in 1970, when Maryland joined Pennsylvania and New York as members of the federally created commission, the city was exempted due to its state-mandated leadership role in water management. In addition, the city points to a 1984 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling giving it the 250 million-gallon-per-day allocation.

The Susquehanna commission's concern is heightened by fear that Baltimore could control the supply during droughts. The city said it has no plan to open its Susquehanna intake tap to such an extent, but is reluctant to give up any access.

Losing the unrestricted access to the river that stretches from New York into the Chesapeake Bay could cost Baltimore $3 million annually, city leaders said.

"At the present time, the city plans to continue to use this water as a backup source out of respect for the conservation needs of the river basin," Janey said in the city statement.

Last month, the commission issued a proposal to regulate the city's access if Baltimore:

* builds a new facility to withdraw or divert water from the Susquehanna;

* installs pumps at the Conowingo Pool to increase withdrawal capacity;

* begins using the river as a constant supply rather than a backup source;

* sells Susquehanna water -- rather than its reservoir water -- to Harford or any other Maryland county.

Harford has joined in the city's cause, while the state of zTC Maryland has been opposing Baltimore through its commission representative.

The two sides are scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. tomorrow at a hearing at the Radisson Hotel in Camp Hill, Pa., where the commission is expected to finalize its proposal to rein in Baltimore's now-uncontrolled access to the Susquehanna.

Baltimore, in turn, is expected to appeal -- channeling the dispute into the courts.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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