Dam Jam 2011: A celebration of Abel Wolman's foresight

October 02, 2011|Dan Rodricks

If you head out to Loch Raven today for the Dam Jam festival celebrating the Baltimore metropolitan area's amazing water supply, remember three things: Texas, Abel Wolman and that thing called foresight.

Every time I get into this subject, I reveal my inner nerd and my outer wow. I think our water system, which delivers billions of gallons to 1.2 million of us every year without fanfare or failure — give or take a water main break now and then — is an extraordinary human achievement. I'm an unabashed fan of the whole thing: water captured from rivers in Baltimore County, Carroll County and Harford County, stored in a series of reservoirs, and delivered through miles of pipeline to homes and businesses in the city and surrounding counties, and without spreading typhoid.

Let us not take this for granted.

Let us look to Texas and a breathtaking drought that has caused an estimated $5 billion in damage to the Lone Star State's farmers and ranchers. Reuters reported Thursday that the state's climatologist believes Texas could be in for an even longer stretch of dry. "It is possible that we could be looking at another of these multiyear droughts like we saw in the 1950s," the climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, told the news agency.

It has also been reported that, during the George Bush-Rick Perry gubernatorial era, little was done to ensure an adequate water supply for the state's growing population. Only a relative pittance has been spent toward the reservoirs, dams and pipelines that Texas planners deemed necessary to meet future demand and to survive droughts.

The Baltimore metropolitan area, by contrast, not only has three large reservoirs holding a combined 85 billion gallons of water, but it also has "The Big Inch." That's a nickname for the Susquehanna Pipeline, a water tunnel — 12 by 12 feet for a 12,000-foot stretch — that connects our system with yet another source, just in case of drought.

"The Big Inch" runs from a pumping station on Deer Creek, a tributary of the mighty Susquehanna, in Harford County. The station sends river water through a tunnel to a high point, 214 feet above sea level, three miles away. From there, the water flows 35 miles down to the Montebello filtration plant in Northeast Baltimore.

It took eight years to dig and build "The Big Inch." It opened in 1966.

Abel Wolman, a sanitary engineer and a pioneer of clean water, pushed for "The Big Inch," even when the Baltimore area already had an adequate daily supply from Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs.

Mr. Wolman was an extraordinary man. His work on chlorination before World War II wiped out typhoid here and in communities around the globe. I once encountered a public health researcher in a cab in Washington. When asked where I was from, I declared Baltimore. The cabbie said, "Oh, home of H.L. Mencken." The scientist said, "The home of Abel Wolman."

Mr. Wolman was the first chairman of the Johns Hopkins department of sanitary engineering and received a joint appointment at the School of Public Health and Hygiene. He was Maryland's top sanitary engineer during the Depression, when Prettyboy Reservoir was built on the Gunpowder River in northern Baltimore County to augment the water supply downstream at Loch Raven.

During a 75-year career, Abel Wolman oversaw construction of the Gunpowder-to-Montebello water tunnel, the Montebello filtration system and Liberty Reservoir on the Patapsco River, and he convinced the mayor of Baltimore and others to add "The Big Inch" to the system.

Since it opened, "The Big Inch" has only been used a few times, in drought. Experts have said over the years that Baltimore's system is adequate without "The Big Inch," but no one alive in the 21st Century regrets that the city spent $35 million 50 years ago to build the thing — particularly as the population continues to grow and as the climate changes.

Abel Wolman's foresight was 20-20. He saw what others couldn't.

But the system he helped develop is massive and old, and it leaks. Miles of underground pipes, laid and buried decades ago, need to be fixed. Remember that today when you're standing at Loch Raven Dam, the part of our amazing water system that everyone can see. Having foresight today means spending big money to fix the things we can't see.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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