Among the report's recommendations were to collect more data to form the groundwater model, encourage regional planning and coordination of growth, establish water appropriation fees to raise money for aquifer research efforts, and hire more staff to better evaluate pumping permit applications. No fee has been instituted for the permits, and staff dedicated to approving pumping permits remains at its 2008 levels of about 50.

It has been difficult to move groundwater issues forward at the state level, Clagett said. To his knowledge, there has been "very little movement" of the Wolman report's recommendations. Groundwater has taken a back seat to stormwater and septic system management, he said.

The report lays out an aspirational eight-year budget of $18 million for groundwater study and modeling, $13 million to beef up the permitting process for pumping, and $72 million in all.

About $5 million has been spent on the groundwater study, said Jay Sakai, director of the state's Water Management Administration, but it has come bit by bit. A bill in the 2012 General Assembly session to explore using permit fees as a funding source died over concerns from farmers, municipalities and businesses, Sakai said.

New strains on the aquifer system, meanwhile, are added frequently. In 2011, the environment department received 134 applications for new pumping of 10,000 gallons of water per day or more, up from 97 such permit applications in 2010. The department's Water Supply Program office is responsible for determining how deep wells must be drilled, ensuring aquifers aren't strained too much.

Population growth a strain

Counties dependent on groundwater are meanwhile among those expected to grow fastest over the next few decades. The populations of Caroline, Queen Anne's, St. Mary's and Charles counties are each expected to grow by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2030, according to the Wolman report.

Digging deeper wells to aquifers like the Upper Patapsco is often the solution if an aquifer is being pumped too much in one area or a well goes dry. For example, 24 wells in St. Mary's County pump 3.7 million gallons a day from the Upper Patapsco — many of them wells that were previously drilled into the shallower Aquia aquifer that covers a similar area, according to the environment department. The water from those Upper Patapsco wells is as much as 300,000 years old.

"It's a matter of balancing uses with what the natural recharge of this aquifer is," Eggleston said. "If you look at a map of flow directions, it's going all over the place because it's going to pumping wells. It's a big change from what the flow directions were before all the pumping started."

With more funding, geologists could gather more data to build the model, Drummond said. The geologists took samples to form a snapshot of water levels in April, when they are at their highest, and they plan to do it again in October, though they might not have the funding. With the money, they would complete the final three years of what they expect is a four-year project.

But as scientists, there's only so much they can do. Their budgeting and legislative affairs colleagues can make pleas for money, but the geologists stick to the science.

"We really can't lobby for funding," said David Bolton, another of the Maryland Geological Survey's geologists. "The needs for this regional assessment were originally spelled out in the Wolman commisson report. We had estimates of what we thought we would need to do that, and we've done as much as we can."

sdance@baltsun.com

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