The U.S. Geological Survey maintains an automated water gauge on Winters Run near the Bel Air Bypass bridge, upstream from where the Maryland American Water Co. draws from the creek to supply water to the town and a few nearby communities.
Information from that gauge can be accessed via the Internet at just about any time of day or night, except when there's a malfunction (or the federal government is shut down), and most of the time the stream is flowing at a rate somewhere between 15 and 30 cubic feet per second.
By way of comparison, the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam has a similar water gauge and has been recording flows in recent days of 5,000 cubic feet per second when no electricity is being generated and nearly 70,000 cubic feet per second when the generators are in use.
To be clear, Winters Run is, compared to the Susquehanna, little more than a trickle. Still, at 15 cubic feet per second, a relatively low flow, nearly 10 million gallons a day pass through Winters Run's banks at the Bel Air Bypass. (That's 7.48 gallons per cubic foot, times 15 cubic feet per second, times 86,400 seconds in a day for 9,694,080 gallons a day.)
Considering that a town of Bel Air's size can generally be expected to need, very roughly, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million gallons of water a day, Winters Run usually has enough water to meet the town's needs and remain environmentally viable downstream from the Maryland American Water filtration plant on Route 1.
From time to time in severe drought, however, Winters Run's flow has dipped well below 15 cubic feet per second, putting both the town's water supply, and the creek downstream from town, in danger. Arrangements have long been in place under which the county's water system, which has a substantial wellfield and a measure of access to the Susquehanna River, provides back-up water in dry times, and from time to time the town has had to make use of that backup plan.
Last week, the town's elected officials heard a presentation from Maryland American, the private company that supplies the town with water, spelling out the need to find a backup source, other than the county, for Winters Run.
A wellfield was suggested as one possible option, and it is a realistic option. It also, however, has the potential to be an expensive option, not to mention one that could end up falling short of expectations in dry times.
Meanwhile, Harford County Executive David R. Craig has outlined a proposal for a countywide water authority that would combine the substantial water resources of the county and Havre de Grace with the less robust water supplies of Aberdeen and Bel Air.
Though the county executive has touted the proposal as having fairly substantial support, Aberdeen has expressed reservations, and Maryland American's sudden push for a non-county backup could well be seen as a corporate effort to prevent a county takeover.
Curiously, Aberdeen and Bel Air have the most to gain in terms of water security. There are, however, issues other than water security at play. Water policy, after all, is one of the limiting factors on development policy and Harford County's municipalities have long sought to retain control over development policy, even as they have sometimes lost control of development itself.
Moreover, there is reason to be cautious of a countywide water authority that could end up having de facto control over countywide development policy.
Still, until there is some sort of resolution on the issue of whether the county is to end up with a unified water authority, Bel Air would do well to be cautious of any Maryland American efforts to embark on a plan to find a potentially expensive new water source.
The county serving as backup has worked fairly well to date, and it will remain sufficient for the next few years while the water authority issue is being hashed out.