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As Long as We Remember...

May 17, 2006

The Water Wars Are Heating Up

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The increasing problems over water availability as a key component of the current warfare over growth are only going to continue to be complex, contentious and difficult.

For many local government officials it all began with a seemingly innocuous looking letter from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) on June 16, 2004.

It had the same monotonous look of so much correspondence that crosses the desk of elected officials from an endless array of alphabet soup state and federal departments, commissions and regulatory agencies. Usually these letters are esoteric gobble-de-goop, full of bureaucratese.

But this MDE letter really wasn't. It was so nondescript that it latter became clear that either many local government officials did not read it or they read it and really didn't understand it.

I read it, understood it, placed a sticky-note on it, and wrote, "The beginning of water wars."

Understand that all water in Maryland is owned by the state. All uses of water, including safety, distribution, rate setting, use of, discharge into and just anything else that is remotely associated with water is by state permit.

As a result of recent droughts, the pressure is on MDE to scrutinize, to the letter of the law, all water allocation permits for municipalities according the worst drought of record.

State law mandates that before any development is approved in a municipality, water availability needs to be guaranteed. This is slowly sinking in with municipal officials. And recently the no-growthers have discovered it to be a great weapon against future development.

Maryland added to this mix in 1996 by adopting a "Smart Growth" public policy that directs all future growth to municipalities instead of out in the middle of a cornfield, in the middle of the county far from potable water and wastewater treatment facilities.

And, perhaps most importantly, there are huge numbers of citizens who have no interest in any more growth - smart or dumb - anywhere near their municipality - period - and they are playing the water-wars-card.

Not helpful in this situation are the never-ending conglomeration of complex, byzantine federal, state and local regulations, laws, special commissions, committees and authorities regulating water permits.

Some of these are conflicting, and all have spawned a cottage industry in Maryland for the full employment of bureaucrats, lawyers, hydrologists, lawmakers, environmental groups, special interests groups and engineers. All of which, in many cases, own a piece of the elephant but haven't a clue as to what an elephant looks like.

The state's recent interpretations of the water allocation permits, in some cases, will not allocate enough water for municipalities for their present needs, never mind any future growth for economic development.

This surprises the uninitiated. After all, Maryland has an abundance of rivers, streams, reservoirs - and the Chesapeake Bay, one of the largest estuary bays in the world. With water everywhere, what's all the fuss?

Safe and reliable drinking water - there's the rub.

And MDE is quite serious about all this.

Just ask the folks in Middletown, where in 2004 MDE forced local officials to halt all development and growth plans until they found additional sources of water.

Taneytown, Mount Airy, southern Carroll County, Southern Maryland and Frederick City and County have all wrangled over sources of water, where to get it, how to share it and who is going to pay for it.

Sadly, the response to the problems of water have resulted in unpleasant public hearings, conspiracy theories, political spinelessness and personal attacks - distorting and polarizing the collective discourse to such an extent that it leaves most citizens skeptical about any discussion of water and/or growth.

It reminds one of a giant gerbil twirling around in its own wheel of self-importance and inflated delusions of influence. It looks impressive, but none of it is helpful.

If it is not bad enough that the no-growthers are angry with local officials - everyone also seems to be angry with MDE.

While everyone is fighting anyone who comes near this conundrum, the forces of nature march on, and, in the next 25 years, the population of Maryland will increase by 1.5 million.

Water and sewer service will never-ever be as cheap as it is now. Providing future capacity for another 1.5 million water users is going to be prohibitively expensive.

Citizens will have to pick their poison; either make the developers pay for it from the profits derived from future houses, or say no to the houses or annexations and precipitously raise water and sewer rates, and taxes, and make taxpayers pay for all necessary upgrades.

Of course, another idea is to spread the financial burden statewide as the Bay Restoration Fund (Flush Tax) has. However, what elected official is going to have the stomach to propose that idea considering the response to the flush tax?

Statewide, elections are going to consume the most dinner table conversations this coming summer and fall. So far, not much in the way of any meaningful discussion has taken place about bread and butter family issues.

Energy prices are going up. This is the year in which everything we have taken for granted for years is going to get uncomfortably expensive.

Perhaps there is no better time to ask political candidates what their plan is for ensuring adequate supplies of water in the future and most importantly, how - or who - is going to pay for it.

In Maryland we need to take a serious look at where 1.5 million new residents are going to live and how is the water (and roads and schools) going to be funded. We need a clear, consistent consensus-oriented public policy.

Meanwhile, let's come together and agree or disagree graciously as we explore what is best for our greater community and our children. Gracious gets gracious in return. Leave the personal pollution out of it.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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