Westminster's water woes

September 29, 2006

Officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment had little choice but to warn Westminster to stop issuing building permits until the city develops an adequate water supply. In times of drought, Westminster is susceptible to a water shortage, not only because of inadequate resources but also because officials there have permitted so much new development in recent years. By the city's own accounting, about 500 new residential connections are in various stages of approval. That's big growth in a community of 18,000.

Westminster can likely solve its water problem - at least on a short-term basis. Officials have been moving forward with a plan to build a 7-mile pipeline to carry water from the Medford Quarry in times of drought. They also plan to tap (and treat water from) an existing well that was contaminated by a fuel spill years ago, and they expect to eventually expand the city's reservoir to add millions of gallons of capacity.

Together, those proposals can plug the water shortage and resolve the potential health threat identified by state officials, perhaps as soon as a year from now. But such modest actions do not address the long-term water problems facing Westminster - or the similar shortages that have been felt across Carroll County, Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and elsewhere.

Clean water has become too precious a commodity, even in a state with Maryland's natural resources, to be taken for granted. Water restrictions are an increasingly common fact of life in landlocked Carroll County, and the surprise is not that the potential for a water crisis exists during even a modest drought but that a state agency so often viewed as weak-kneed by environmental groups was willing to take so tough a stand in an election year.

Westminster officials may complain that MDE would have them halt development entirely - and thus dry up impact fees and other taxes that would finance water improvements - but that's a hollow argument. The city never should have allowed expansion to outpace its water supply.

That's a lesson for every community in the state. The only long-term solution is for towns and counties to take stock of their water supplies and not overburden their systems. That will require a greater investment in planning and research - and the political will to enforce limits. MDE's decision to hold Westminster accountable is certainly a step in the right direction.

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