A reputation that goes with the flow

Water woes shine spotlight on obscure Towson Reservoir

May 16, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

It was all you could ask for in a neighbor.

Quiet. Inconspicuous. In fact, when the trouble came, it was not even of its own making. It was not the Towson Reservoir - hidden in plain sight at Stevenson Lane and Hillen Road - that broke down over the weekend. It was the pumping stations serving the 15 million-gallon reservoir that failed the 200,000 customers who depend on this reservoir for their water.

But the temporary water shortage made people in this Towson neighborhood stop and consider what they have taken for granted all these years.

"I don't think many people think about it," says Baltimore County historian John McGrain, who remembers when the reservoir worked in concert with a quite visible steel tank above Ware Avenue. "The service is so good, you would never give [it] a thought."

That is the paradox of a reservoir and of most basic services. As long as the water kept coming, as it has for almost 80 years in this location, no one gave a thought to how it got there. But tell people not to water their lawns or wash their cars - as happened over the weekend - and suddenly people are talking about the reservoir, wondering how it escaped their notice all these years, what it's doing on top of that hill.

The elliptical reservoir has existed since 1923, the last stop before water goes to homes. To get to the reservoir, the water travels a circuitous route, from Loch Raven Reservoir to the Guilford, Cromwell Bridge and Fullerton pumping stations, three of the city's 17, then to the Towson Reservoir.

If you drive north on York Road from Cold Spring Lane and turn right on Stevenson, continuing past the Country Club of Maryland, you make roughly the same trip the water makes from the Guilford pumping station, where the weekend problems began.

Mechanical failures there, then at Cromwell Bridge, slowed the flow to the concrete basin, which typically supplies about 52 million gallons a day to its customers. Repairs were completed Monday night.

Some of those customers live as far south as Roland Park and as far north as Sparks. Others live next door.

The reservoir has "neighbors" on Far Hills Drive and Stevenson Lane. But there are few complaints, according to the Towson police precinct.

I would say the Towson Reservoir is a very good neighbor," said George Good Jr., president of the Fellowship Forest Community Association.

Good, whose neighborhood borders the reservoir, became quite familiar with the reservoir when it was renovated two to three years ago. He said the only time he has cause to pay attention to the reservoir is when the grass around it needs cutting. When he calls the Department of Public Works, he gets a prompt response, he said.

Mario Fuentes, a public works engineer for 16 years, logged 26 hours of overtime over the weekend because of the reservoir.

Once a water engineer in San Salvador, he smiled at the idea that this was a notable emergency but added that of all services a person might lose, water is the most vital.

Yesterday, everything was back to normal at the Towson Reservoir. The water level was 510 feet above sea level. At 515 feet, it is considered full. The bottom of the basin is 499 feet above sea level.

The water flowed in, moved in lazy clockwise circles and flowed back out. Tiny birds skimmed along the surface, a breeze stirred the branches of the trees. The only other sound was the traffic on Hillen and Stevenson. All around, people drew water from their faucets, washed their cars and watered their lawns.

Perhaps some of them remembered where it came from - their quiet neighbor on the hill.

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