Water woes betide part of Carroll

Outdoor watering ban for 18,000 neighbors of Liberty Reservoir

Poor management faulted

Hot, dry weather, area's growth create an early emergency

June 06, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

More than 10 percent of Carroll County's population is under a water emergency before summer begins, and the treatment plant that supplies their water is "stressed to the limit," county officials say.

In the midst of last week's hot, dry weather, about 18,000 residents who live in South Carroll and get water from nearby Liberty Reservoir were ordered not to water their gardens, wash their cars or fill kiddie pools.

County commissioners have been negotiating for a year with Baltimore, which owns the reservoir, to buy more water. The city is evaluating the request, according to its Bureau of Public Works.

While the amount of water Carroll can draw daily from the reservoir has not changed for 20 years, the population of South Carroll, which includes Sykesville and Eldersburg, has nearly tripled in that time. About two-thirds use reservoir water. About 11,000 residents have private wells, though the county encourages them to connect with the public system.

"How can they keep building houses when they know they have only the same supply of water?" said Michael Willinger of Sykesville. "This does not make planning sense. We are just making the problem worse."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who in his three terms has presided over growth that drew 6,000 more residents to South Carroll, said he cannot be blamed for problems brought on by weather.

"Drought happens," said Dell, a lifelong farmer. "I can't make it rain on farms or to fill in reservoirs. These people are worried about lawns and azaleas. There are farmers who are watching hundreds of acres of crops dry up."

Many residents do blame Dell and previous commissioners.

"There is sufficient water for the fountain in front of Dell's office to spout water day and night," said Gene Edwards of Eldersburg, referring to the fountain at the entrance to the County Office Building. "The problem is not one of weather, but one of poor management. Why should I have a ban because of their poor planning?"

Many newcomers have bought $250,000 homes without giving a thought to their faucets and garden hoses. Now they are watching gardens wither and wondering if worse is to come.

"A lot of us used to be in metro areas, where things were handled much better," said George Murphy of Eldersburg. "In Carroll, it is catch as catch can. They never made the return investment for all the property taxes they collect from people down here."

Dell has little patience for people who move to Carroll for its schools and pastoral views and then complain about growth.

"These people are complaining about growth, but who do they think the growth is?" said Dell. "What we have done is good management. If the plant fails, they will open their taps and won't have water."

The reservoir, which some residents can see from their back yards and front porches, holds 42 billion gallons of water, fed by underground streams, creeks and rain. Baltimore uses 80 million gallons a day. The county buys 3 million gallons a day from the city and wants to increase it to 5 million a day.

Carroll also wants to buy land from the city to expand the Freedom water treatment plant and add backup equipment. No decision has been made on that request.

The county is negotiating with the state to build several wells at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, but construction will not be finished until the end of next summer.

The county cannot fill a new $750,000 water storage tower that holds 1 million gallons because it's already drawing its maximum allotment.

The commissioners and the county's water officials have fielded dozens of calls from residents since the ban was imposed Tuesday.

"Most have been, `Can I fill the kids' pool or water the azaleas?' and the answer is no," said Gary Horst, the county's director of enterprise and recreation services. "There are also complaints about commercial car washes, but for the most part, they use recycled water."

A few people are reporting on neighbors.

"We are logging the information, but we are not going to be water police," said Horst.

So far, the response to the ban has been "underwhelming," and a few callers have said they are ignoring the ban, Horst said. After the ban was imposed, water usage did not drop significantly, he said.

"I suspect there is still some outside use," Horst said.

An additional concern is the age of the plant, which was built in the early 1970s and hasn't been updated. The original equipment is still in use.

Horst has calculated worst-case scenarios from equipment breakdown to a system failure. South Carroll would have about a 12-hour supply of water if the worst happened, and much of that would be reserved for fire emergencies, said Horst.

"If the plant is not putting out, the only other source is what we have in storage," he said. "At that point, we would be calling in emergency services and trucking in water."

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