In Aberdeen, plan to tap creek awash in debate

City says its wells are stressed

critics fear harm to stream

April 01, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

In these dry times, Aberdeen's thirst for water is drawing fire from critics and raising concerns that the state is handling the Harford County town's request to tap a local creek too casually.

Aberdeen wants to acquire the permit held for decades by Aberdeen Proving Ground that allows the installation to tap Deer Creek, which winds through the northern county before emptying into the Susquehanna River.

It's a contentious issue: A recent public meeting on the matter drew about 400 people and lasted nearly five hours.

Supporters say approving the request is an easy decision because the permit has existed for almost 30 years and the town does not want to draw any more water than the proving ground was allowed to.

Aberdeen's water comes mainly from a well field, which is in distress, officials say. They say the water table, which has dropped about 20 feet since the 1970s, is further stressed by the drought.

"We need the water today," said City Manager Peter A. Dacey. "Today, our choice is Deer Creek."

But many county residents and lawmakers disagree.

"They haven't proven to me that their wells are going belly up," said County Councilman Lance C. Miller. "What well hasn't been running 24-7? Who isn't in a drought?"

The town won a contract in 1999 to provide the proving ground with water service and must continue to do so. But by acquiring the permit, the town could draw additional water to bolster its supplies.

The proving ground's permit allows daily withdrawals of up to 6 million gallons. The installation takes about 1 million gallons a day, with a peak withdrawal of about 4 million gallons a day.

Critics worry that if the city has the right to take 6 million gallons a day, eventually it will do so. They say the town is exaggerating its well problems to get the water, which it would use to feed development. And they wonder how that would affect the health of the stream and its wildlife.

Such questions are unlikely to be answered because the Maryland Department of the Environment is not requiring environmental studies before making a decision.

The town is taking over an existing system and asking for no water above the permitted level, said Mark T. Filar, the department's water appropriation permits section chief. Even if the town draws the full 6 million gallons a day from Deer Creek, he said, the water level would drop only about three-tenths of an inch a day.

MDE sets "flow-bys," or minimum levels, for streams. If Deer Creek's water level falls too much, no water can be taken out, Filar said.

The agency's attitude has raised a few eyebrows. Although the proving ground's permit, which is nontransferable, expired in February last year, MDE has allowed the town to draw water under the permit.

"The city of Aberdeen is operating the plant under the permit that was issued to APG," Filar said.

The agency has an unwritten policy, Filar said, that if an application to take over an existing permit has been filed and the agency is working toward reissuing it, "we still consider it an active permit."

This troubles Republican Del. Barry Glassman and other members of the General Assembly's Harford delegation. He wonders why the town's plan to take some of the Deer Creek water to rest its wells and supply additional homes doesn't constitute a new use.

"MDE sort of got lulled into this thing, that it was just a transfer," Glassman said. "We're concerned about that."

The Department of Natural Resources also voiced concerns last fall about the Deer Creek permit transfer.

"We didn't really have strong evidence that [withdrawals] will hurt Deer Creek," said Ray C. Dintaman Jr. of the department's environmental review unit. But, he added, all rivers in Maryland are under pressure from development.

DNR raised concerns with the Department of the Environment over whether the creek's flow-by rates are large enough to ensure that fish downstream have adequate water. The two agencies plan to review those rates, Dintaman said.

Deer Creek generally has a flow-by of more than 100 cubic feet a second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The minimum flow-by for drawing water is 43 cubic feet a second.

Over the years, the stream has fallen below that level several times.

"It's not a major river; it's more of a minor stream," said Wendy McPherson, a Geological Survey hydrologist.

At monitoring points along Deer Creek, she said, "Nine of the last 10 months, the flow has been very low and has been setting records, just about more than any station in the state."

The stream's unreliability is a key concern for opponents of the permit transfer and MDE alike. Filar said until the town has a contract for emergency water the permit cannot be granted.

Dacey said a water deal with the county "is close to being final."

MDE, the county and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission also want to look more closely at the data on Aberdeen's wells.

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