Dire impact seen in city's water plan Agencies oppose Susquehanna use

'Turn a trickle into a drop'

Baltimore claims legal right to supply

June 19, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's plan to claim millions of gallons of water from the Susquehanna River Basin would have devastating effects on the entire Upper Chesapeake Bay region during a drought, say the Maryland and federal agencies arrayed against the city in a new water war.

Opponents of the plan, ranging from the town of Havre de Grace to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, say they want Baltimore to agree to do what all other users of Susquehanna River water must do: conserve during a drought.

The EPA wants the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to impose limits on Baltimore's thirst, "not because of current conditions but because of the certainty and gravity of future droughts," says a letter from William Matuszeski, director of the agency's Chesapeake Bay Program.

The city, which uses the water held by Conowingo Dam near the Pennsylvania border only as a backup supply, contends it has the legal right to take water from the 90-foot-deep reservoir with no restrictions. The Maryland legislature has exempted Baltimore City from restrictions imposed on other users of the Conowingo Pool.

Baltimore had a claim on the water before 1970, when Congress created the panel made up of representatives from Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. So attorneys for the city say it isn't subject to the panel's rules. The commission is expected to resist that argument during a meeting today in Harrisburg, Pa. Both sides believe the feud will end up in court.

The city claims the right to 250 million gallons of water a day.

In normal years, that's less than one-400th of the mighty Susquehanna's flow, and probably poses no problem, experts say. But combine a booming population with a severe drought like the one of 1964, and Baltimore's allotment would swallow up about 60 percent of the river's water.

"It would turn a trickle into a drop," said Lewis Linker of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program.

As a result, Baltimore's dry-weather withdrawals would hasten the day when pumps and faucets go dry in the town of Chester, Pa. Docks, marinas and bait shops on Conowingo Pool would be left stranded by water levels falling as much as 3 feet a month, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and falling water levels would chase away recreational fishermen, who are a mainstay of the local economy, and damage aquatic life in the pool.

The region's electric power supply would drop. The Conowingo hydroelectric dam would have to cut back on power production, Pennsylvania's Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Authority would shut down because it could not draw water for its cooling towers, and two conventional power plants would be in a similar fix, Pennsylvania officials say.

Wells in the Maryland towns of Havre de Grace, Perryville and Port Deposit could be ruined by saltwater, as lower flows from the Susquehanna caused the salt content of Upper Bay waters to rise, says the Maryland Department of the Environment.

And changing salinity levels could have a cascade of effects on the Chesapeake Bay and its wildlife.

No detailed studies have been done since 1984, when the Army Corps of Engineers examined the effects of increased water withdrawals combined with a severe drought and projected dire consequences for waterfowl and oysters, and the hunters and watermen who depend on them.

"In effect, what you're doing is taking the natural salinity pattern of the bay and significantly altering it, and you can't expect to do that without seeing significant alterations in the bay as well," said David Bleil, who worked on the 1984 study for the corps and now assesses bay resources for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

In testimony before the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in April, a Baltimore representative said the city had not considered the environmental impacts of the water withdrawals. The city's attorney could not be reached for comment yesterday.

At the hearing, state and federal scientists said there was reason to fear a series of harmful effects.

Upper bay rockfish stocks could face harm as water gets saltier in the Susquehanna Flats, a prime rockfish nursery area just below the dam, according to MDE experts. Increased salt levels would threaten the area's abundant beds of freshwater-loving bay grasses, which shelter young fish, and might also drive them away.

Shad and herring migrations could be impeded by falling water levels and changing salinities, thwarting efforts to restore those runs, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Corps' study also predicted "very large" losses of oysters, soft clams and rockfish if Susquehanna flows were reduced by a combination of drought and increased urban use.

Oyster spawning grounds would shrink dramatically as salt levels rise in many areas north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Corps study found. "They can live in a fairly wide range of salinities, but they spawn in a much narrower range," Bleil said.

Stepped-up city withdrawals could cause problems as far south as Anne Arundel County. About three-fourths of municipal water withdrawals are returned to the bay in treated sewage discharge -- but that water is released farther south in the Back River, in the Patapsco River and at sites in Anne Arundel where salinity is normally higher.

The extra fresh water discharges in those area could kill local bay grass species that require saltier water and cause algae blooms, Bleil said.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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