Taken for granted

September 16, 2004

THE WHOLE REGION should thank the Baltimore County Council for recently moving to more restrictive zoning for more than 35,000 acres in the Prettyboy, Loch Raven and Liberty reservoir watersheds and around streambeds in the Green Spring Valley.

Decreasing the number of houses that can be built on each acre in these sensitive areas was a responsible and farsighted step toward better protecting some of the main sources of the entire metropolitan area's drinking water.

Maryland is so rich in water -- it defines the state's geography, after all -- that it's very easy for many residents to take this critical resource for granted. But even as Marylanders are awash in a relatively wet year, they need only recall the harsh drought of just two years ago -- when Baltimore reservoir levels hit record lows -- to remind themselves that the state's water supplies are hardly infinite.

Or they can look to Carroll County, where rapid development in the southern part of the county and in the Taneytown, Sykesville and Mount Airy areas has so strained water supplies that building bans are in effect. Or go farther west to Frederick County, where water shortages have shut down construction near Middletown and for a time in the city of Frederick.

Without increased state and local government attention to water supplies and the impact of development on them, such periodic emergency measures are apt to be increasingly common in Maryland, according to a state advisory committee report released last month.

The study predicted that the likely addition of 1 million residents to Maryland from 2000 to 2030 will drive up state water use by more than 16 percent. To put that increased demand in perspective, it breaks down to the statewide need for 223 million more gallons of fresh water per day -- or more water than is now used daily in all of Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the upper Eastern Shore combined.

Not surprisingly, the sharpest jumps in water use are expected in two of Maryland's fastest-growing areas, Southern Maryland and the lower Eastern Shore, both reliant on deep aquifers. The supplies in these aquifers are not known with certainty, but their water levels have been declining and they are not readily recharged by rainfall.

The advisory committee recommends more state financing and staffing to assess and monitor water-supply sources and better coordinate water use among Maryland jurisdictions and between Maryland and Virginia -- steps that the state Department of Environment says it is beginning to take within its budget constraints.

The committee also urges the state to find better ways to ensure that localities approve new developments only if water supplies are adequate -- an assurance that has been too often overlooked even as Maryland became a national leader in the 1990s for its Smart Growth initiatives.

Maryland's potential water-supply problems are inextricably bound with the challenge of managing growth within the state. The spread of low-density development on half-acre or larger lots across much of Maryland taxes water sources, eats up forest and agricultural land needed to maintain water quality, and requires costly new water and sewer infrastructure.

Yet in Maryland, such sprawl has been increasing for three decades and is projected to continue to grow -- by 200,000 acres of new development from 1997 to 2020, the study says. Inefficient land use to that extent spells much more pressure on the state's water supplies.

Either Maryland and its jurisdictions act to protect water supplies now -- as Baltimore County has just done -- or a growing number of areas of the state will likely end up having to turn later to the disruptive and expensive Band-Aid of building bans.

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