City resisting order to tap Susquehanna

Baltimore officials plan to cooperate, but question is when

August 05, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Despite being ordered to tap the Susquehanna River immediately to stretch the Baltimore area's dwindling water supply, city officials refused to say yesterday when they would comply -- setting up a possible legal confrontation with the state.

George G. Balog, the city's public works director, said his staff is preparing to draw water from the river, but he insisted that Tuesday's order by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to begin pumping right away is "premature." The city still has enough water stored in its three reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties to meet the area's needs for at least 60 more days, he said.

"We're at a loss why the state hasn't communicated with us why they're demanding [this]," Balog said in an interview at the Montebello treatment plant in Northeast Baltimore. "There's no reason for panic."

Balog's resistance continued the verbal duel between city and state officials over the adequacy of the Baltimore area's water supply. The city provides water to 1.8 million customers in Baltimore and surrounding counties.

Clinton R. Coleman, spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said the mayor's office did not get the governor's order to tap the Susquehanna until late yesterday afternoon, a full day after it was issued. Coleman said he had forwarded the order to the city's lawyers to review.

Asked if the city intends to comply, Coleman said, "The mayor has pledged to cooperate with the governor in every way possible." But Coleman added, "Mr. Balog has been telling the mayor [that tapping the Susquehanna now] was not necessary."

Schmoke is out of town this weekattending a conference in Colorado, and has left Balog in charge of dealing with the water issue, Coleman said.

Glendening, at a State House news conference yesterday spelling out mandatory statewide water use restrictions, insisted that his order would be followed.

"This is not the time for anyone to posture about anything," Glendening said. "This is the time for us to pull together and head off what could be a serious crisis for the citizens of this state."

Glendening had been advised by his aides last week that the city had only 35 days' worth of water left in the reservoirs, not 60 as Balog insists. But the governor brushed aside the difference: "I don't care whether the water supply for 1.8 million people is 30 days or 60 days, that's a crisis and we ought to take action now."

`Don't just turn a faucet'

Balog said he directed his staff 10 days ago to flush out the underground pipeline and prepare the pumps that would be used to draw water from the Susquehanna just above the Conowingo Dam. That pipeline, built in 1966 and used eight or nine times in the past during water shortages, is almost ready for use, Balog said.

"We don't just turn a faucet and the water comes," he said.

But Balog said his experts -- including a private engineering firm -- have advised him that the river's water won't be needed for another two weeks.

And he reiterated yesterday that state officials were mistaken about how much water the city has, which he attributed to their lack of communication with him.

The city's Liberty, Loch Raven and Prettyboy reservoirs have been drained to about 55 percent of their capacity by this year's near-record drought as well as by an abnormally hot summer, which has triggered record levels of water consumption, Balog said.

But even so, he said, the three man-made lakes still contain 40.7 billion gallons of water. He said that should be more than ample to meet current consumption -- roughly 300 million gallons a day -- for at least two more months and still leave water in the reservoirs.

Balog has said he was reluctant to tap the Susquehanna because he did not want to deprive other river users, including nuclear and hydroelectric power plants and communities in Pennsylvania that rely on it for drinking water.

Greater cost to the city

It also will cost the city money to pump water from the river and to treat it; it costs more to treat than reservoir water because it is cloudier and contains more minerals. But Balog insisted that expense was not an issue, because the city's water utility has an emergency fund of $3 million to $5 million for such contingencies.

Communities and businesses relying on the river have been under orders to curtail unnecessary outdoor water use since July 21, because the drought-depleted river has one-third its normal flow.

On Tuesday, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission authorized the city to take up to 137 million gallons per day -- enough to supply more than a third of the area's water needs. The city and the commission are battling in a federal court over Baltimore's right to withdraw as much water as it wants, but the commission set aside the legal dispute for now.

"We're trying to do everything we can from this end to accommodate the city so that the people of the city don't suffer," said Paul Swartz, the commission's executive director.

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