Respecting a scarce resource

March 06, 2007

How about this for a solution to the water shortage that has brought development to a standstill in some Western Maryland towns? Change the definition of shortage.

That's basically the idea behind a proposal offered by state Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Carroll County Republican. He wants to change the calculation by which state regulators determine whether the supply of water is adequate to meet anticipated demand.

This shortsighted approach doesn't produce any additional water; it would allow municipalities to claim water rights to underground supplies from farmland and parks adjacent to their borders for the purposes of permitting new growth.

It's time for leaders of the three-county Piedmont region most affected to acknowledge the obvious: "There's only so much water," observed Shari Wilson, Maryland's environment secretary, who opposes the Brinkley bill.

Conservation is a far more responsible tactic for managing shortages and directing development than gaming the regulations. Relief over the long term might also be provided through development of two new reservoirs planned to serve the region.

Developers frustrated at state building limits within overdeveloped municipalities such as Taneytown and Westminster warn that state water policy encourages sprawl by forcing builders into rural areas where they can be served with private wells and septic tanks. But that's a bullying tactic that should be thwarted by county and state regulators.

Hard as it is to accept, Maryland has entered an era of limits. Noncoastal regions of the state are vulnerable to droughts. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of the Chesapeake Bay is so grave that ever-tighter restrictions on sewage discharge are necessary. There isn't enough water or sewage treatment capacity to accommodate unlimited development.

Instead of trying to snatch resources from public lands, Maryland's cities, towns and counties should be working together on a regional basis to determine how best those resources should be allocated. Economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. With thoughtful planning, there's no need to settle for simplistic solutions that don't actually solve anything.

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