The Ehrlich administration is considering a policy to lease or sell water on and under state lands - a move sought by towns thirsty for water to serve new homes but that critics say could pave the way for intense development on the borders of state parks.
Officials with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources say they have received about a dozen requests from towns that want either to tap into deep groundwater aquifers under state property or to use surface water flowing through state parks to accommodate new homes and businesses. The state currently has no procedures for considering such requests.
"We want to have a policy that says what the conditions are to say yes or no, so that we can defend the position either way," said Kristin Saunders Evans, an assistant secretary of natural resources. "We're trying to be responsible and proactive, and avoid a problem down the road."
The department is in the early stages of preparing the policy. In one draft, officials suggested that they would be looking at such issues as whether towns' proposals to tap state water benefited state government and whether the use was "reasonable" before granting permission. The agency says it has not decided how much it would charge local governments or developers who wanted to use state water.
Among the towns interested in state water are Boonsboro in Washington County, which is seeking the rights to groundwater in South Mountain State Park, and Middletown in Frederick County, which has asked about water in Gambrill State Park. Developers of Terrapin Run, a 4,300-home community proposed for Allegany County, inquired about tapping into Green Ridge State Forest to build their project but say they have since made other arrangements.
For at least five years, the state has been providing water to a Western Maryland ski resort and to a complex of buildings in Carroll County. But some critics say that establishing a policy would inevitably lead to more such deals and would encourage development around environmentally sensitive state lands.
Such a policy "will lead to a development-driven atmosphere," said Victoria Woodward, executive director of Safe Waterways in Maryland, a conservation group. "Communities will begin to change their comprehensive plans and push development toward state parks in the hope that they'll get to use those waters."
State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a leading environmental advocate in the General Assembly, said he worries that the proposed policy would erode state protection of public lands.
"It shows you a mind-set that is antithetical to conservation and to good stewardship," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, who learned of the proposal last week from reporters.
Two years ago, preservationists were infuriated when Ehrlich administration officials began negotiating an agreement to sell 836 acres of forest in St. Mary's County to Willard Hackerman, the politically influential CEO of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. The proposal drew sharp criticism, and the transaction never took place.
But when lawmakers discovered that the DNR had compiled a list of 3,000 acres of land in and around state parks that could potentially be sold, Frosh helped push legislation through the General Assembly prohibiting state agencies from selling or leasing such property without Assembly approval. In addition, lawmakers approved a second measure to make those restrictions part of the Maryland Constitution. The amendment is subject to approval by state voters and will be on the November ballot.
"You would think that DNR would have gotten the message, but apparently not," Frosh said.
The department doesn't appear to need permission from the General Assembly to enact a policy. In at least two cases - both negotiated during Democratic administrations - the DNR is already selling or giving away state water.
In the late 1990s, the agency granted Carroll County permission to drill a well on land it leases in Patapsco Valley State Park. The county pays nothing for the 50,000 gallons a day it gets from the well, which serves a state police training facility and other tenants on the grounds of the former Springfield State Hospital.
And since at least 2001, the state has been providing water from Deep Creek Lake to the Wisp ski resort for what DNR officials describe as a nominal fee. Wisp has permission to take up to 189 million gallons a year.
When Wisp recently asked for more water, DNR officials took a closer look at the deal and realized that it was lopsided in favor of the resort, according to Assistant Secretary Mike Slattery.
"If we're going to make available this state asset, we need a better-structured deal," he said. DNR officials said they could not immediately provide a copy of the Wisp agreement.
Department officials have pointed to Baltimore City's sale of water to Carroll County as a potential example of a better, market-rate deal. The city charges about 37 cents per 1,000 gallons for water from the Liberty Reservoir.