Tapping a rare source

River: The process of drawing water from the Susquehanna begins, as officials aim to ease the pressure on the region's dwindling reservoirs.

August 08, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Dan Thanh Dang | Timothy B. Wheeler and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Call it the Big Water Switch.

Harford County residents became the first in the Baltimore area yesterday to draw water from the Susquehanna River and slow the draining of the region's drought-depleted reservoirs.

As most Harford residents slumbered Friday night, workers at the county's Abingdon Filtration Plant slowly cranked a valve closed, shutting the flow of water from Baltimore.

"We came out of it with flying colors, and we're in better condition now after the 10-hour shutdown," said Talad Said, plant superintendent. "There was no discoloration. We didn't run out of water or have low pressure or anything. Harford County residents shouldn't notice any kind of difference."

Usually, Baltimore pumps 8 million gallons of water a day from Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore County through pipelines to Harford County, furnishing about 60 percent of the water used by 32,000 customers of Harford's water system. The other 5 million gallons come from county-owned wells near Perryman.

But with the mid-Atlantic region suffering its worst drought in a century, Baltimore is tapping the Susquehanna to ease the demand on the dwindling reservoirs.

The city can draw up to 150 million gallons a day from the river, enough to meet half the daily consumption of its 1.8 million customers in the city and parts of three surrounding counties. The prolonged drought and an unusually high summertime demand has drained nearly half the water from the three reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties -- Loch Raven, Liberty and Prettyboy -- that normally feed the region.

So, in a carefully orchestrated maneuver, Baltimore City and Harford County public works crews reversed the flow of water in the 38-mile underground pipeline nicknamed "The Big Inch" that links the Susquehanna with the city's Montebello Filtration Plant on Hillen Road.

The pipeline, an engineering feat that took 13 years to dig, is a lifeline that has helped quench the Baltimore area's thirst during nine dry spells since it opened in 1966.

It took an hour late Friday night for Harford crews to close the 9-foot-wide pipe through which water courses from Baltimore into the Abingdon treatment plant. Once that pipe was closed, at about 11 p.m., city public works crews switched on a pump at a station on the south bank of the Susquehanna to draw water from the river, about a quarter-mile upstream from Conowingo Dam.

The pump pulled water from the river uphill to a point 250 feet above sea level. Then gravity took over, and the water flowed slowly toward Baltimore's Montebello filtration plant -- a slow-as-molasses journey that will take two days. The river water pushed before it a musty "slug" of water that has stagnated in the upper end of the pipeline for five years, the last time water was drawn from the river.

The pipeline flows past Harford's Abingdon water plant, where county crews tapped into it about 2 p.m. yesterday, once some of the stagnant water had been flushed through. Harford workers monitored the progress of river water toward their plant throughout yesterday, drawing samples from the tunnel by manholes.

Looks, tastes the same

The river water requires more treatment than water drawn from Loch Raven, said Ed Adams, the county's public works director. It contains more sediment and minerals.

But the Abingdon plant was designed to process Susquehanna water, Adams said, so county residents should not notice a difference in the taste or appearance of their tap water.

"Our consumers will not see any interruption in service, and they won't see any changes in color," county spokeswoman Sue Collins said before the changeover.

The switch seemed to work perfectly.

"I cannot see any difference in the water. It smells the same to me," said Abingdon resident John Kleinberg, 38, after he took a sip of water. "My son seems to think it's all right. He's drinking his heart away."

The trick, explained Adams, is to fine-tune the manual and chemical filtration process so that the water meets exacting requirements for safe and appealing drinking.

"There's a lot of art in running one of these things -- a lot of engineering, but a lot of art, too," Adams said of the filtration plant. He credited Said, the plant superintendent, and others on his staff with handling the transition smoothly.

"I just bring them coffee and stay out of the way," Adams said.

The operation was accomplished in about 10 hours. The county scheduled the changeover to take place overnight, the time of least water use.

Ready for an emergency

Before the city water shut-off, Harford County stockpiled as much water as it could in storage tanks, and appealed to residents to conserve water this weekend.

However, county officials said they were ready, in the case of a major fire or an unforeseen demand for water, to open the valve earlier than planned and chemically treat the stagnant water.

When the water level in the 40-foot-high storage tanks dropped by 10 feet yesterday about 2 p.m., plant officials switched over to water pumped from the Susquehanna, Said stated.

With Harford County safely drinking from the Susquehanna, Baltimore public works crews planned to spend the rest of the weekend flushing the stagnant water from the tunnel and preparing to blend river water with the reservoir-based stock being treated at the Montebello filtration plant.

By tomorrow, as many as 50 million gallons of river water might be fed daily into the city's network of water mains. City officials say that if the transition goes smoothly, they hope to boost the Susquehanna supplement to 100 million gallons a day within a week -- enough to furnish more than a third of what area residents are consuming.

"This is an enormous project," said George G. Balog, the city's director of public works. "But we're a day ahead of schedule. We're getting real close."

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