Liquid assets

July 11, 2006

While the Ehrlich administration thinks about drafting a policy for selling fresh water on or under publicly owned lands, the Department of Natural Resources says it wants to consider all options in order to "avoid a problem down the road." That's easy enough. Don't sell the water.

The state already allows some buildings in Carroll County and a Western Maryland ski resort to tap into nearby public water supplies, but the current issue is not about them or how they are able to use the resource despite the lack of a formal procedure within the DNR. The matter is bubbling up now because of growth and the pressure of growth around small towns - mostly in the rolling Piedmont countryside - and outside state parks.

The notion of the state permitting a developer to tap into a deep underground aquifer beneath a public park in order to accommodate new private homes and businesses is about as absurd as, say, the state selling hundreds of acres in a Southern Maryland park to a private contractor. Oh. That nearly happened, didn't it?

From a public policy perspective, a "don't sell" posture ensures that public ownership of the ground and what's below it remains intact. And from a pragmatic perspective, "don't sell" would be much easier for the DNR to live with. The department's mission is to preserve the state's natural resources, not to market them to the highest bidder. That's taking the "Government should be run like a business" mantra to extremes.

This is not to suggest that the state forever hoard its water. Allowances for public use could be made in emergencies such as prolonged drought or if a nearby town's water supply becomes contaminated. Those are better uses of public resources for the public good.

The city of Aberdeen's quest for more water is another issue altogether and merits serious consideration. Thousands of new workers are expected to arrive in the Harford County area because of the federal base realignment and closure plan. Aberdeen's well-based water supply is under strain, and local officials are talking about building a desalinization plant to treat water pulled from the Chesapeake Bay, the world's largest estuary. The cost of treating bay water, which has a low salinity level at Aberdeen's location on the Chesapeake, is expensive. But, unlike the aquifers under state parks, the bay's supply of the wet stuff is practically limitless.

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