Deer Creek flows uneasily

Water: Its supply in doubt, Aberdeen wants to draw up to 6 million gallons a day from Deer Creek.

January 19, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

From the restored 19th- century truss bridge at the edge of his 200-acre farm, Monroe Duke watches Deer Creek kick up a riffle of white water as it meanders past on its way to the Susquehanna River.

Duke's farm is a few miles from the creek's juncture with the Susquehanna south of Darlington. In its nearly 40-mile course across Harford County, Deer Creek waters animals, fields and wells as it winds through parks, forests and farmland.

The creek, about 2 feet deep on average and 80 feet wide at most, is home to diverse plants and animals, including rare bog turtles and one of the state's best-known shad runs.

The peaceful stream doesn't look like troubled water, but it is.

Several times in the past half-century, local and state governments have sought to use the creek's water for public water systems, tourist attractions and even a reservoir, similar to Loch Raven in Baltimore County.

The current controversy over Deer Creek involves a permit request filed in 2001 by Aberdeen officials to draw up to 6 million gallons of water a day from the creek. City officials say Aberdeen's aquifer has been depleted and needs to be rested.

An additional complication was added when the Army last year discovered perchlorate, a hazardous chemical, in some of the municipal wells along the city's boundary with Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Duke, a retired aerospace engineer, is helping lead the fight to protect Deer Creek's spring-fed waters, something he has been doing for nearly 30 years.

He was first compelled to get involved one late fall day in 1965, when he read in the newspaper that Harford County was seeking to draw 15 million gallons of water a day for its public water supply. Duke, somewhere "between annoyed and angry," got up, walked down to the creek and did what any good engineer would do: analyzed what he saw.

"I concluded by some mental calculations that there wasn't that much water in the creek," he said. He went to his neighbors, shared his concerns, and from that grew powerful opposition that eventually helped defeat the proposal.

Duke's property, where he raised beef cattle before switching over to hay a few years ago, borders the creek for about a mile, and when he walked down to it that day in the mid-1960s, he saw his and his neighbors' riparian rights at risk.

"Here's a resource that's going to be denied me and others for whatever future needs we might have," he said, "which is the same thing we have today in Aberdeen. It's almost identical."

A dozen or so miles away, to the south, Aberdeen Mayor Douglas Wilson is leading a fight, too, for his city to have a clean, adequate water supply. For him, the victory will be having permission to draw from Deer Creek.

"The need for the city is critical," said Wilson, who added that until perchlorate is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency - which may not be for several years - the Army has said it will not clean up the contamination.

"Right now, we can't manage our water resources," Wilson said. "We have an aquifer that is contaminated with perchlorate." Last month, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission - a compact of states through which the Susquehanna River flows that decides water-use issues - approved a permit for the city to draw water to serve Aberdeen Proving Ground, a contract it won in 1999. But a vote on a second permit for city water use was delayed until next month, and then last week, delayed indefinitely.

City and commission officials "identified various issues [with the permit], and the city is asking for additional time to investigate the points we brought up," said Susan Obleski, a commission spokeswoman. She said no date had been set for the vote, and she could not discuss the details of their disagreements.

Wilson said water experts representing the city and the commission disagreed over interpretation of the city's well field data.

Critics of the proposed draw of 6 million gallons a day worry that if the city has the right to take that much water, eventually it will do so. They say the city is exaggerating its well problems to get the water, which it would use to feed development.

"Everybody feels the city is going to do something to Deer Creek," Wilson said, and that the city is going to "become a big megalopolis. ... That's not going to happen."

Many farmers in the north, including Duke, wonder what will happen to their farms - especially in dry times like the past year, when Deer Creek set record lows for 206 days - if Aberdeen is awarded the permit. Under state law, municipal water needs come before agricultural.

William Shimek, a member of the Deer Creek Watershed Association, became Duke's neighbor after he bought Noble's Mill, on the creek's edge, from Duke in 1986. The lawyer-turned-artist has built his home and studio around the original machinery of the mill, once one of the county's largest.

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