Summit faces issue of water vs. sprawl

February 04, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

A shortage of water in Carroll County's population centers is threatening to undermine the state's pioneering anti-sprawl policies by forcing new homes into previously undeveloped areas, a national exert on water rights said yesterday.

"There seems to be a real disconnect between state water policy and the state Smart Growth policy," Jesse J. Richardson Jr., an attorney and planning professor at Virginia Tech, said at a water summit in Westminster yesterday. "The Maryland Department of the Environment can say we don't have enough water, but that means you have to build those houses out in rural areas, with well and septic, on 1- or 2- or 5-acre lots. That's called sprawl."

Also attending the summit were county officials and representatives from Carroll's eight municipalities. Many participants stressed the need for keeping growth centered around existing towns, while looking at conservation and regional reservoirs to meet increasing demand.

Insufficient planning for the county's and state's public water systems could have dire consequences for farmland preservation and affordable housing, some participants said.

The summit came as Carroll's municipalities struggle with new state regulations requiring them to increase their water supply to meet the demands of 100-year drought conditions.

In Westminster, a building moratorium remains in effect until new sources of water are secured. An impending water shortage could also freeze development in the town of Mount Airy this spring. And Taneytown's well allocations can support only an additional 15 homes, Taneytown's city manager said.

Carroll County is acting as a model for a new state law requiring all counties and municipalities to develop specific water resources plans.

Municipal officials described decades-old plans to build two reservoirs, at Union Mills and Gillis Falls, as regional solutions. But even if construction on those costly projects were to begin today, the reservoirs wouldn't be in operation for 10 years, officials said.

In the meantime, officials called for forming a countywide group to explore solutions. They said towns with competing water needs must not feel that they are being pitted against one another.

"We have to be planning as a group for all these things and looking at how to pay for them," said Marge Wolf, the city administrator for Westminster. "It can't just fall to the municipalities."

While waiting for the Union Mills reservoir, Westminster and Taneytown officials said they hope to gain approval to draw water directly from Big Pipe Creek in northern Carroll County. Westminster is also moving ahead with plans to build an $8 million water treatment plant and a $6.5 million emergency pipeline from Medford Quarry to the city's Cranberry Reservoir.

Conservation efforts and lobbying state legislators to reform and clarify Maryland's water laws were other immediate actions proposed by the summit's participants.

Taneytown City Manager James L. Schumacher described a state Senate bill that would consider land outside a municipality's limits in estimating how quickly a city's aquifers recharge and how much water can be drawn. He said that would enable small cities like Taneytown to grow more densely.

Richardson said Maryland uses conservative assumptions to estimate how quickly groundwater is replenished.

Participants also criticized the conservative estimates of water allocation limits from the state environmental department. The department has said Hampstead can draw only 580,000 gallons a day from its water system, though the city has drawn as much as 724,000 gallons a day in the past, according to Town Manager Ken Decker.

"There should be a process, with scientists outside MDE to arbitrate disputes," Decker said.

Local environmentalists said that the summit -- and state policy -- should more thoroughly address the issue of water conservation.

Only Richardson's talk mentioned reducing demand by repairing leaking pipelines and septic systems, recycling rainwater and restricting use during droughts.

Officials agreed that water policy in Central Maryland has improved since the drought of 2002, but it still faces tremendous challenges.

"Water is going to be the key as to how we grow, and what really happens in every one of our areas," Carroll County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said in closing.

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