Sale of water draws censure

Advisory panel says state plan favors growth over parks


A policy drafted by the Ehrlich administration that would allow the sale of water from state parks and other public lands was sharply criticized yesterday by a citizens advisory panel appointed by the administration.

"There are concerns that this policy would effectively promote growth," said Frank L. Wise, a water quality specialist for Prince George's County who serves as chairman of the State Water Quality Advisory Committee. "There is no conservation" in the proposal, he said.

The state should have a policy of denying requests from developers or towns that want to tap water from public lands unless it's an emergency and public health is at risk, Wise and other committee members told the Maryland Department of Natural Resources during a meeting yesterday.

The 29-member volunteer board's opinions bear no legal weight, but the state agency will consider the advice as it rewrites a proposed water-use policy, said Michael Walsh, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources. No date has been set for a decision on the policy.

"We have a higher calling to protect the environment. We are not promoting growth," said Ronald A. Guns, deputy secretary of the state agency, which manages 446,000 acres of public land and 17,000 miles of waterways.

Some committee members said they are concerned that a statewide policy allowing water sales could give a green light to development projects near state parks or forests that otherwise wouldn't be built because of a lack of water. Water on public land should only be used in emergencies, they said.

"The fact that we could take what should be an emergency supply of water and use it for some kind of development is a reprehensible thought," said George Hanson, a representative on the committee from southern Maryland.

The department is formulating a policy on the sale or lease of water because about a dozen towns and businesses have asked to tap into waterways on state land or the groundwater beneath the public land, state officials said.

The agency wants a procedure for evaluating these requests, as well as one from a skiing company that wants to increase the amount of water it draws from a state-owned lake.

In 2001, the Wisp ski resort in Western Maryland received permission from the state to draw up to 189 million gallons of water a year from Deep Creek Lake for the manufacture of snow. The company doesn't pay for the water, but it gives the state $3,000 a year for the right to run a pipeline across state land.

"We're not consuming the water, we're borrowing it. It's coming back" when the snow melts, said Karen Myers, president of Wisp, in a telephone interview.

Last winter, Wisp and a partner company asked the state to increase the amount of water it draws to 254.5 million gallons a year. The two firms have since been in negotiations with the state Department of Natural Resources over the possible increase and what price, if any, the companies should pay to the state.

At one point, a department official suggested a price of about 37 cents per 1,000 gallons - the same price that the city of Baltimore charges Carroll County to buy water from Liberty Reservoir, Myers said. But then the state backed off from that figure, and is now trying to formulate a comprehensive policy governing water sales.

Janice L. Graham, a committee member who serves as political chair for an Eastern Shore branch of the Sierra Club, said the state should keep in mind that federal plans for military base realignment are expected to bring thousands of residents to Maryland.

"With ...the increased development pressure, the idea of [using] water to encourage development would certainly be harmful to the state of Maryland," Graham said.

Jay Charland, a committee member and leader of the Assateague Coastal Trust, said he is concerned that the state hasn't done enough studies of underground water supplies to know what effect withdrawing water from public lands might have on the environment.

"Water flows. It doesn't just stay in one spot," said Mary Marsh, a former president of the Maryland Conservation Council. "How is it we have the right to give away or sell water to a private entity when it may belong to another state?"

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