New permit would cut APG's water fees

Costs to fall if Aberdeen allowed to tap Deer Creek

February 22, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

In the debate over whether Aberdeen should get permission to draw water from Deer Creek for municipal use, the Army expects to benefit from significantly lower water utility costs if regulators grant the permit.

APG's water service costs have more than doubled since 2000, when the city took over Aberdeen Proving Ground's aging water system. The reason for the increase is that the Army is the sole customer on the Deer Creek system, which has required millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs to meet state and federal environmental standards.

But if a joint-use permit is granted, that would change.

"If the city gets joint use, then our cost gets reduced accordingly. A 50 percent cut is a lot of money when you consider what it costs to operate the plant," said Harry A. Greveris of APG's directorate of installation operations.

The Maryland Department of the Environment and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a compact of states on the river, must approve the permit. Neither agency has done so, largely because the city has not yet secured a safe backup water supply it can use when Deer Creek's levels are too low to draw from.

Greveris said the Army is paying an average $7 million a year for water and wastewater treatment under its contract with the city, which includes about $4 million a year for system improvements. For the water alone, he said, that translates to about $3.60 per 1,000 gallons. When the Army operated the system, it cost about $1.60.

"It's not that it's saved us money," Greveris said of the city contract. "It's allowed us to do things we couldn't before."

A problem for the Army nationwide has been affording the operation and maintenance of utilities to serve military bases. In 1997, Congress and the Defense Department moved to turn roughly 1,600 aging gas, water and electricity services over to private companies to cut back on the billions the Pentagon was spending annually to run them and keep them up.

In a July 2002 interview with Armed Forces News Service, Get Moy, director for utilities and energy use in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment, said funding active missions, weapons and supplies has often drawn dollars from utility maintenance.

"After so many years of that type of competition, we've found that the utility systems have just traditionally been underfunded," Moy said.

The impact of the fund transfers were felt at APG, said Bert R. Scott III, director of installation operations. "Our infrastructure was going down the tubes," he said.

The contract with the city not only allows APG's infrastructure to be improved, Greveris said, but it also lets the city use grants and finance repairs -- something the Army cannot do. APG pays for operating and capital expenses for the system in a single contract, he said.

When APG moved to privatize its services, Harford County and Aberdeen were the only bidders. The city, Greveris said, was the only bidder to offer a plan for eventual joint use -- the most affordable option for APG.

The city and the Army have said that with infrastructure in place for Deer Creek withdrawals, paying into the county system -- including millions of dollars to expand its Abingdon water treatment plant -- is a less sensible solution.

The major system improvements to the Chapel Hill water treatment plant -- which draws from Deer Creek -- should be completed by 2007, Scott said. At an average cost of $2 million a year, the improvements amount to about $14 million.

If Aberdeen had chosen to go with county water to supply its municipal needs and APG, the city would have had to pay the county about $7.6 million for its one-time contribution to the Abingdon water treatment plant expansion, said Jackie Ludwig, a water and sewer engineer for the county.

The county's water rate is for customers is $2 per 1,000 gallons, she said.

But critics of the joint-use plan say the public deserves an analysis of expenditures.

"A dollar is a dollar, whether it comes from Army costs or city costs," said Monroe Duke, president of the Deer Creek Watershed Association, which opposes the joint-use permit plan because the city's need for water would take precedence over agricultural users' needs during a drought.

Duke said that if federal dollars are used to improve the Deer Creek system, "Everyone in the United States is underwriting Aberdeen's water system."

The Chapel Hill water treatment plant and the Deer Creek pumping station, north of Aberdeen, were built in the 1940s to carry water from the northern end of the county to the Army base on the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the original components of the system, including 1950s cypress storage barrels in the plant, remain in use today.

But some elements, such as a leaking clear well, where treated water is stored, have caused problems, Greveris said. When chlorinated water leaked through the holding well and mixed with organic debris such as leaves, chloroform was created that seeped into neighbors' wells.

The Army has repaid the city about $741,000 for a liner in the clear well that has stopped the leaking, Greveris said.

Other improvements to the Chapel Hill plant include new filters, pumps and an emergency generators, according to Army records.

He said APG is moving now to privatize water utilities in the Edgewood area of the 72,500- acre installation.

Greveris said APG cannot lobby for joint use of Deer Creek water. "All we could tell the SRBC is we would really benefit from it. The city has to do it on their own," he said.

Added Scott: "We'd sort of like it to happen."

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