Grappling with an ever-tightening water supply, the growing town of Mount Airy has given up on tapping nearby rivers in favor of a renewed search for wells that can produce enough water so that homes already approved there can be built.
This week, the Town Council approved a new agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment limiting development until additional sources of water can be found to supplement the 10 wells now supplying the community of nearly 8,500 residents on the border of Carroll and Frederick counties.
The consent order, approved by a 4-1 vote, replaces a nearly two-year-old agreement with the state environment agency in which the town said it planned to tap the South Branch of the Patapsco River to furnish the water needed for its growth.
But that plan has been dead for a year, a victim of voter backlash against the additional growth that would have been required to secure the river water. A developer had offered to provide access to the river and build a water treatment plant if the town would annex adjoining farmland to allow construction of 275 new homes.
The Town Council approved that annexation in February 2006, only to have voters reject it in a referendum in May and elect a new council majority opposed to the deal with the developer.
"This new consent order allows us to find ways to do things without being forced to the altar with a developer," said Councilman John Woodhull, one of the river deal's critics.
"So maybe we can get the growth under control that the town has already agreed to without having to agree to new growth in order to get [water]," added Woodhull, who oversees the town's water and sewer operations.
Town officials had agreed to limit new construction at the urging of state officials because new development projects already approved required more water than the town's wells were permitted to withdraw from the ground.
Under the agreement approved this week, the town is temporarily allowed to pump more from its wells than permitted, but has only a limited amount left to provide to new developments. Woodhull said yesterday that the remaining margin is about 20,000 gallons per day - enough to supply only about 80 single-family homes, though hundreds more had already been approved by previous town administrations.
Woodhull said the Town Council abandoned the Patapsco plan - as well as subsequent proposals to tap nearby Gillis Falls or the Potomac River in Frederick County - because they would have been difficult, time-consuming and costly. The Patapsco plan would have cost $37 million, though the developer had offered to finance the amount up front, with the cost to be paid back through future connection fees.
Last month, municipal officials instead approved spending $187,000 to drill up to 30 exploratory wells in a quest to boost the town's water supply. One site where the town plans to prospect for water is Gillis Falls. The land there is owned by Carroll County, which has long sought to build a drinking-water reservoir there - though it is unclear whether environmental regulators would ever approve damming or diverting the stream.
Town officials also are seeking permission to drill for water on other land in and around Mount Airy, offering to pay the owners if enough water can be found.
Mount Airy has four years to find enough water to meet the town's current needs, under the agreement with MDE. New developments not already approved would be barred until additional sources can be found.
Robert Summers, deputy state environment secretary, called the agreement with the town "very tight."
"This basically gives them some time to find that additional water, and we do not believe it puts anybody at risk," he said.
The well drilling plan was opposed by Councilwoman Wendi Peters, who supported the Patapsco deal and said she believes bold action is needed to keep the town from stagnating.
"It's a piecemeal approach," she said of drilling wells. "It's not a long-term plan." Tapping a river would diversify the town's water supply, she argued, and would in one large project ensure enough water to meet demand well into the future. She noted that developers and others have drilled unsuccessfully for water around town in recent years.
But Woodhull said that town officials only want enough water to get them out of the current jam, with a relatively modest safety margin. Meanwhile, they aim to stretch the remaining supply by plugging leaks in pipes and by encouraging conservation.
The town has managed to avoid mandatory outdoor watering restrictions for the past year, the councilman said, but he added that the town might have to ban watering soon unless consumption moderates .