Westminster contends with streams' slow flow

City forced to use emergency intake from Hull Creek

August 12, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

At its beginnings, Westminster's water supply is so small you could walk across it without getting your shoes wet.

North of the city on the sloping pastures of Cranberry Meadows dairy farm, water seeps quietly to the surface from springs, softening the ground into marshland and moving slowly south. The fledgling stream, called Cranberry Branch, is nearly invisible to passers-by.

But five miles away, this trickle grows into a major resource for 27,000 people in Westminster, providing 2.4 million gallons of water a day to extinguish fires, wash cars, water lawns, cook, clean and bathe. Farther downstream, it flows into Baltimore's water system, serving 1.8 million more people.

Cranberry Branch is one of thousands of small streams and tributaries that branch out like veins, pulling water from the farthest corners of the state to lakes and reservoirs. But this summer these feeder streams are dropping to their lowest levels in years. Lately, the streams' endings are not much larger than their beginnings.

Cranberry and Hull Creek, the two sources Westminster depends on for about 80 percent of its water, are flowing at half their normal rates. Water levels in the city's wells are dropping. And the city's reservoir has dropped to 14 feet, 35 percent of capacity.

In another sign of dry times, the city was forced to open an emergency intake from Hull Creek to make up for its losses.

"It's our last resort," said Tim Owens, a water plant operator. "We don't want to use it."

But the city has used it every day since July 7, when the city's reservoir reached uncomfortably low levels.

For Westminster, opening the emergency intake might be compared with taking out a no-interest loan. Westminster must maintain a certain flow to Baltimore's water system. When it takes too much, it must activate a reserve pump and start repaying its debt gallon for gallon.

"If we take out 41 gallons, we have to put back 41 gallons," said Paula K. Martin, superintendent of the Westminster water treatment plant.

Trouble is, the reserve pump is paying back the water debt at only half the rate the city is borrowing. It will likely take Westminster three to six months of pumping during nondrought conditions to settle its deficit.

A visible measure of Westminster's debt is a rusting gauging station, a metal yardstick stuck upright in the stream below a wooden plank bridge. Located just below the confluence of Hull Creek and Cranberry Branch, the gauge tracks the flow of water into the west branch of the Patapsco River, which flows into Liberty Reservoir.

If it's high, Westminster has no worries. Too low, as it has been for several weeks, and the city knows its deficit to Baltimore is growing.

1980s water battle

Westminster's agreement to maintain a minimum flow to Baltimore stems from a water battle in the early 1980s, when both cities fought for control over the Patapsco watershed.

Westminster wanted to pull more water from its feeder streams, but Baltimore, which depends on the same watershed, was concerned about the plan's impact on the city's water supply.

The cities agreed that Westminster was allowed to take more water but must maintain a certain downstream flow to Baltimore.

Despite the growing water deficit, water customers have grown more frugal in recent weeks. Water use has dropped about 15 to 20 percent most days, said Thomas B. Beyard, director of Westminster's department of planning and public works.

"The water ban has been a success because the word has gotten out," said Beyard.

Source a mystery to some

But the word is not out about the small feeder streams and the role they play in the region's water resources.

When giving tours of the Westminster water plant, Martin often asks visitors where their tap water comes from. Her question is often greeted with blank stares.

Some people don't know whether they have a well or public water, Martin said.

"As long as they have water to drink and when they get rid of it, it goes away, I don't think people are concerned," she said.

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