Ideas are flowing on water crisis

Conservation measures, task force considered to ease shortages

February 18, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,[Sun Reporter]

Carroll County officials have asked the county's Environmental Advisory Council to launch a water conservation effort and are working to form a water task force, two plans that grew out of a countywide water summit.

The conservation campaign should seek ways to recycle wastewater and promote low water-use fixtures and environmentally sensitive landscaping and gardening techniques, county officials said.

The effort comes as Westminster officials are hoping to resolve by the end of the month a water deficit that has shut down development in the county seat, Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said.

Mount Airy officials are also considering a building moratorium or a water conservation ordinance that mandates conservation efforts for any new building permits approved. "We can't tell people, `you have to save water,' " Mount Airy Mayor Frank Johnson said. "This isn't legislating where people can only take two showers a day, but it is looking at some of the measures we want to put in place."

Meanwhile, county officials are hoping to gain approval for two long-planned reservoirs they say are necessary to maintain the state's Smart Growth policy by clustering development around existing cities and towns.

The county's new conservation effort will pick up where an early-to-mid-1990s one left off. The effort helped establish plumbing code requirements for reduced flow water fixtures and toilets, environmental compliance officer Jim Slater said.

"It was moving on fairly well, but it kind of got lost in the shuffle," Slater said. "There's always something new. But the basic premise of conservation doesn't change over time. It's managing what you have wisely, so you can continue to have it over long-term."

Slater said he envisions a conservation Web site and programs on the county's cable access channel to help spread the message.

A water task force composed of leaders from Carroll's eight municipalities is being formed through the Carroll County Council of Governments, which meets Wednesday night.

County Planning Director Steven C. Horn said his department was working Friday to outline the areas of concern that such a commission should address.

One newer concept the conservation campaign could promote is landscaping with native grasses and perennial plants that require less watering, Slater said. In the past, he said, homeowner courses on environmentally sensitive yard care were offered in subdivisions throughout the county.

Encouraging residents to forgo a conventional grass lawn could also save water, Slater said, though that might not go over well with people.

"I've been trying to systematically eliminate my lawn for 25 years now," Slater said.

Gray water systems that recycle water used for washing and for irrigation of home gardens and farms is a time-tested practice that could be employed, if county plumbing codes and state environmental regulations were amended to support its use, said Steven Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff.

Rain barrels and underground cisterns could also reduce water demand and help strained groundwater wells to recharge at faster rates, Powell said.

At the water summit, questions on how conservation would affect municipal water systems were raised.

Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker described a possible Catch-22 scenario, where a town's reduced water consumption would force a municipal system to raise its water rates. A system sets its rates based upon past water demand.

But Ferguson, of Westminster, said dealing with reduced water consumption is a problem he would gladly confront.

"You can always figure out ways to get through a revenue problem, but you certainly can't figure out what to do, if you don't have water," he said.

New state regulations requiring municipal systems to increase their water supply to meet the demands of 100-year drought conditions could perhaps be reformed, Powell said.

County officials and a water rights' expert have said that reduced allocation permits for municipal wells could push well and septic development into the countryside.

"Do you plan for the worst day of your life?" Powell said, explaining the logic of new state regulations based on the worst drought on record.

Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer said he was impressed with the spirit of cooperation that has emerged as the county and its municipalities try to tackle the water issue.

"I'm very encouraged that our towns and county government are going to look at this in a collaborative way," he said. "We have to look at this from a countywide and possibly even a regional perspective."

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