Aberdeen is one bureaucratic hurdle away from tapping Deer Creek for its drinking water and overcoming a united front by farmers and conservationists.
To move ahead with its plans, the city needs to win approval by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in a Dec. 15 meeting.
Barring any delays, the vote would decide a years-long debate over the 50-mile stream, which runs through the hilly terrain of northern Harford County and empties into the Susquehanna.
At issue is whether Aberdeen can pump up to 4.9 million gallons a day for the city's 5,000 water customers. The city already taps Deer Creek for Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Deer Creek's crystalline waters appeal to city officials who say their aging well system is in trouble.
Two wells are running at half capacity because they are contaminated by hazardous chemicals that for years seeped from explosives buried on the military base. A third well is working at about a third of its capacity because of an underground gasoline leak.
"We need another source of water," City Manager Peter Dacey said. "That whole vulnerability of having only one water source really puts this city and the residents in jeopardy."
But landowners along Deer Creek, who for years have used the stream to water their cattle farms and nurseries, say the stream is not big enough to serve both their needs and the city's.
They say the city has exaggerated its well problems to gain access to a cheaper water source and fuel development.
"The character of this land and a long history of farming hangs in the balance on this permit," Candace Lohr of the Harford County Farm Bureau said in literature distributed last week by those opposing Harford's plans. "Our ability to make a living is at stake."
The opponents' claims were rejected last month by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which approved a permit request by Aberdeen. The Farm Bureau, with the backing of landowners in the Deer Creek watershed as well as Harford County government, is appealing the state's ruling.
Among their objections, they argue the city has ignored alternatives and failed to produce a study on the environmental effect of tapping Deer Creek for municipal use.
The creek is home to an array of aquatic life, including the endangered Maryland darter and the rare bog turtle.
Dacey said the city has looked extensively at alternatives. Tapping the creek would be the cheapest. He added the city had a Johns Hopkins authority determine that expanding Deer Creek's use would not harm the environment.
Dacey dismissed farmers' concerns by emphasizing that the state measures the creek constantly and has set a threshold for when the city would be forbidden from using the creek.
The state Department of the Environment agreed. A department spokesman said the city has a solid backup water plan in the event that Deer Creek becomes too low, such as during a drought. Part of that plan is to use Harford County water.
Moreover, the state lowered the maximum amount of Deer Creek water available to Aberdeen, which has been using the creek since 2001 to serve Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Previously, the city was allowed to draw an average of 3.5 million gallons a day to serve the military base, and never more than 6 million gallons in one day.
Those numbers were reduced to a daily average of 3.27 million gallons and a daily peak of 4.9 million gallons.
Farmers contend that the city uses only about a million gallons of Deer Creek water daily for the military base. Pumping the creek for city customers would jeopardize the livelihood of farmers along the creek, they say.
"If one of the three resources for agriculture -- land, water and air -- is restricted and terminated completely, I think the question becomes, `Have the rights of these landowners been completely taken away?'" farmer Lee McDaniel said.
McDaniel's family has raised cattle on an 850-acre parcel near Churchville since the 1960s.
"We don't have an option to turn on another valve if our streams go low or our wells go dry," said McDaniel, adding some farmers had to fill their trucks with buckets of Harford County water during the drought of 2002.
The multistate river basin commission is slated to vote on Aberdeen's plan at its quarterly meeting Dec. 15 in Cecil County. If the commission approves Aberdeen's plan, the city would need to revise its water contract with Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Dacey said that if all goes well for Aberdeen, the city could be tapping Deer Creek for municipal use by summer.