Mount Airy might tap Potomac for water

Extending Frederick Co. pipeline seen as least costly option for growing town


Mount Airy is so thirsty for water to accommodate its growing population that it is considering tapping into the Potomac River, nearly 30 miles away.

Town officials, who have limited development until new sources of drinking water can be found, are exploring extending a pipeline that serves Frederick County, another fast-growing area that has had water concerns.

The Potomac pipeline would be less costly than two other options that town officials are considering: tapping the South Branch of the Patapsco River or drawing directly from Gillis Falls, a tributary of the Patapsco near Mount Airy.

"We still need more information, but this is good news," Mount Airy Councilwoman Wendi W. Peters said. "We were a town with no water. Now we have three options that are all really feasible."

Mount Airy officials would need to gain approval soon from Frederick County's commissioners and the Maryland Department of the Environment if it is to complete a Potomac pipeline and pumping station by October 2009.

Given demand projections, Mount Airy, a town of 8,500 that straddles the border between Carroll and Frederick counties, will require a new water source by 2010.

The town has had at least a dozen test wells drilled in recent years, to no avail. In March last year, Mount Airy made a consent agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment, which limits new development until a new water source is found.

Representatives of Hazen and Sawyer, a Baltimore-based environmental engineering firm, told town officials Monday night that a plan to tap the Patapsco River would cost twice as much as the Potomac pipeline and would not yield enough water.

The council had been largely focused on the Patapsco River as a potential water source, but many residents view that narrow stretch of the river - surrounded by commercial development, railroad tracks and junkyards on Interstate 70 - as an unstable water source that poses a danger of contamination.

Water became an urgent issue last month when the Town Council approved the annexation of a 152-acre farm where a developer plans to build 275 homes.

The developer, Robert Scranton of CBI Development Group, said he has seen other projects, such as Prospect Mill, his Main Street redevelopment effort, held up until a new water source was identified. Scranton has offered to cover the costs of building a small reservoir, pipeline and treatment plant to tap into the South Branch of the Patapsco.

"We're still very confident of our proposal," Scranton said. "We're excited the town has another viable option. All future residential and commercial development will ultimately pay these capital costs."

The South Branch of the Patapsco would yield 550,000 gallons a day, which wouldn't eliminate Mount Airy's projected deficit of 800,000 gallons a day by 2010, said James A. Avirett, vice president of Hazen and Sawyer.

The Potomac pipeline could initially provide 600,000 gallons a day and 1.2 million gallons a day by 2020, Avirett said. The third option, drawing directly from Gillis Falls in Woodbine, could safely yield 850,000 gallons a day, Avirett told the council.

The Potomac shouldn't be unduly strained by increased demand for its water because "there is far more water in the river than is needed for water supply," said Curtis Dalpra, spokesman for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

Maryland and Virginia have disputed water rights to the Potomac for centuries, and the battle went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. The justices ruled in Virginia's favor, granting the state freedom to withdraw water from the Potomac - which forms the boundary between the two states - without requiring a permit from the MDE.

At an estimated $15 million, the Potomac pipeline would be less expensive than the other two water options. Hazen and Sawyer projects that the South Branch of the Patapsco option would cost $37 million and that the Gillis Falls option would cost $40 million.

For years, Carroll County commissioners have planned to draw water from Gillis Falls, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency has turned down proposals to dam that stream and build a reservoir.

Michael L. Cady, vice president of Frederick County's Board of Commissioners, said Mount Airy's use of the Potomac is feasible but might not be approved by all commissioners: "The request for less than 1 million gallons a day of water would not put a strain on what we could provide," Cady said. "But there's a reluctance from some commissioners that this could encourage new development. I don't think it's a slam dunk."

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