Water crisis brings flood of resentment

Many residents say shortage is result of poor planning

`Denial of services'

County has plans to start using series of wells next year

July 04, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

As the heat wave continues and reservoir levels drop, water pressure is low and tempers are frayed in South Carroll.

For the third consecutive year, residents of the county's most populated area are coping with water restrictions brought on by heat, dry weather and high demand. Many attribute water shortages to the county's poor planning, which has allowed development to continue.

"I am sure they are not telling people buying all these expensive new houses that they might not have water," said Carolyn Fairbank of Eldersburg. "[County Commissioner] Donald Dell says he can't do anything about the weather, but he can do something about development."

She called the water crisis unconscionable and the result of "crisis-management planning."

The county called for conservation in April and banned all outdoor use June 1.

The ban was relaxed three weeks ago, allowing outdoor use on alternate days depending on street address. Restrictions will probably continue throughout the summer.

The Freedom Water Treatment Plant, which supplies more than 6,500 households, could not continue operating above its daily capacity of 3 million gallons, water it draws from Liberty Reservoir.

South Carroll's population has more than doubled, to 28,000, since the plant was built in the 1970s.

"This situation could have been avoided," said Phil Bennett, former chairman of the Freedom Area Citizens Council, which serves as a liaison to county government. "Past commissioners could have planned better. It is difficult to understand why they are allowing more development when the plant needs expansion and water pressure is so low."

Fairbank, also a council member, made an unsuccessful run for commissioner last year, basing her campaign on water and planning issues.

Angela Lee of Eldersburg said the crisis has nothing to do with weather and everything to do with the aging plant.

"That plant was never built to accommodate the number of customers it has," said Lee.

Many called the restrictions unfair, and a few ignored them.

"You have to assume people are watering their lawns, when the grass is 6 inches high and dark green and everybody else's is brown," said Steve Heck, superintendent of the county bureau of utilities.

Any day without full use of water is "denial of services," said Michael Willinger of Sykesville.

"They have had the same 3 million gallons a day from that plant for the last 20 years," said Willinger. "Every time they build another house, they are denying those of us who live here already and discriminating against us. We need a building moratorium."

Longtime residents, like Fairbank, said the county insisted that they hook into the public water system 20 years ago. They have seen quarterly water bills increase steadily.

"We had a perfectly good well, but were told we had to hook into the system," she said. "The county said as new people came onto the system our bills would come down. We used to pay $15 a quarter; now it's $120 for two people."

The county plans a series of wells at Springfield Hospital Center. Five wells, with a combined yield of about 1.5 million gallons a day, should be ready by next summer.

The project "makes good insurance sense and should alleviate people's fears that there is not enough water," said J. Michael Evans, county public works director.

"We have plenty of water now to meet our domestic needs," Evans said. "Our problem is the spikes in usage."

Plans also call for expanding the treatment plant and increasing the daily allocation to 5 million gallons, but those proposals must win the approval of Baltimore, owner of the reservoir.

The county scrapped plans for a $16 million second treatment plant on Piney Run Lake a few years ago in favor of the wells and the expansion. Wells can run dry, said Lee, who favors a new plant.

The new wells cannot be compared to residential wells on 1-acre lots, said Gary Horst, county director of enterprise and recreation services.

"People are making the equation between these wells and residential wells that pump 1.5 gallons a minute," said Horst.

The wells at Springfield draw from a 7-square-mile drainage area, he said. The county has conducted stream flow, rainfall and worst-case analyses.

"Even in the worst of all years, these wells would allow maximum flow," Horst said. "And 1.5 million gallons a day is just a percentage of what these could produce. We could take 1.5 million gallons every day for extended periods of time."

The state has tentatively approved the wells project, and construction could begin in about a month.

"My tax dollars didn't pay for wells; they paid for a plant," said Lee. "The county has not done what it planned for the last 17 years. Here we are in 1999, and they are still making excuses."

Lee says she wonders what portion of her quarterly water bills was saved for expansion projects.

Most of the money has gone to operational costs, said Dell. Hookup fees for construction go into an enterprise fund used to improve and expand the system.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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