Century of projects keeps the water flowing to city

Reservoirs, pipeline protect against drought

August 22, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Maryland may be suffering through one of its worst droughts ever, but Baltimore-area residents hooked up to the city's water system have little cause to worry that their faucets will run dry anytime soon.

Despite assertions by state officials that all of Maryland is gripped by a water crisis, the regional network of reservoirs and pipelines developed by Baltimore over the past century has secured enough of the precious liquid to last well into next year, even if the skies yield not another drop, its overseer says.

"Our system is designed to survive a year without rain," says George G. Balog, Baltimore's public works director. "Who would anticipate a year without rain? That's why I call ours a drought-proof system."

That's no idle boast, according to independent experts. At least on paper, the Baltimore area's water system is the least vulnerable in the state to droughts, says John J. Boland, professor of geography and environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.

And for that, credit goes to a cadre of engineers who persuaded the city time and again to splurge on costly and sometimes controversial water-supply projects, particularly the 38-mile pipeline now tapping the Susquehanna River for thirsty Baltimoreans.

"It was, I would say, a bold and creative approach," Boland concludes.

With the Susquehanna pipeline furnishing 100 million gallons of water daily to the city and surrounding counties, the drain on the city's three reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties has been cut in half, Balog says.

Liberty, Loch Raven and Prettyboy reservoirs were approaching half-empty overall when the city turned on its pumps in Harford County two weeks ago to begin drawing Susquehanna water from the lake created by the Conowingo Dam.

But even in their depleted state, the three city reservoirs still hold nearly 38 billion gallons, city officials say. That is enough to supply the system's 1.8 million customers for at least three more months -- and quite likely until the beginning of next year, even in the improbable event that there is no letup in the current dry spell. The city's water engineers had estimated a five-month supply remaining just before turning on the Susquehanna pumps.

As low as the reservoirs are now -- Prettyboy is two-thirds empty and Liberty almost 60 percent drained -- city officials say they have been lower several times, notably during droughts in the 1960s and mid-'80s. Outdoor water-use restrictions were imposed in some parts of the Baltimore area during those dry spells.

265 million gallons a day

Area residents and businesses have been using about 265 million gallons a day this month. That is down 20 percent from the average daily use in July, before Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued his Aug. 4 order declaring a drought emergency and imposing statewide curbs on outdoor water uses.

The rain-starved rivers and streams that feed the region's reservoirs, though flowing at about one-third the normal rate, are still recharging the lakes with 65 million gallons a day, city officials say.

With the Susquehanna supplying another 100 million gallons per day, the reservoirs are losing about 100 million gallons per day.

Even continuing this daily deficit, 38 billion gallons could theoretically last a year. But officials note that only about half of the reservoir supply can be drawn easily from the lakes without causing water-quality and distribution problems.

So with the additional water from the Susquehanna, the usable supply on hand would last about six months. Without the Susquehanna water, the daily deficit is about 200 million gallons, reducing the easily usable supply to about three months.

"It's a pretty secure supply even without the Susquehanna," says Boland, who has studied water systems in Maryland and is a consultant to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Roots of system

Baltimore's water supply has not always been so secure.

In the city's infancy in the first half of the 19th century, drinking water was furnished by a private company, which tapped the Jones Falls and distributed water via wooden pipes. Springhouses and fountains scattered around the town served those who did not subscribe to the Baltimore Water Co.

Public dissatisfaction with the company prompted the city to buy it in 1854, making water supply solely a municipal responsibility.

There were some missteps in the growing city's early quest for water. Its first reservoir, Lake Roland, was found to be inadequate and contaminated shortly after it was filled in 1862. Elected officials had ignored their own engineers in choosing to dam the Jones Falls because it was the cheapest option, when the experts had urged tapping the more distant but far more abundant Gunpowder and Patapsco rivers.

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