Baltimore City

City neighborhoods see benefits, problems with reservoir transition plan

Baltimore's scenic reservoirs could be transformed into lakes criss-crossed by rowboats as the city removes them from the water supply to comply with a federal health mandate.

To meet the 2006 federal water safety rule to protect drinking water from contaminants, the city is spending tens of millions of dollars to install underground tanks to replace the reservoirs. The Department of Public Works will fill its small reservoir in Guilford to install tanks there, but other reservoirs will be decommissioned by 2018 and could become places for recreation.

"It is something that can take this neighborhood to the next level," said Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents the West Baltimore communities surrounding Druid Lake. He envisions it, without a perimeter fence, as a focal point for fireworks displays and a place for boaters.

The consequences of the reservoir decomissioning will ripple throughout the city's neighborhoods. The decision to take Druid Lake out of the water system may be a boon to Reservoir Hill. The choice to fill in Guilford's reservoir, community members say, could have the opposite effect if the site is not maintained.

"Our concern is the impact on housing values," said Catherine Boyne, who lives just south of the Guilford reservoir, a 7-acre body of drinking water off East Cold Spring Lane.

The city plans to replace the Guilford reservoir with two underground water storage tanks over a period of up to three years.

Baltimore gets most of its water from the Gunpowder River and the North Branch of the Patapsco River. Water from those sources is held in the Prettyboy, Loch Raven and Liberty reservoirs in Baltimore County before it is pumped through pipelines to three filtration plants in the city. The treated water then is moved to tanks and open-air reservoirs for storage until it is used by consumers.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency instituted a rule requiring all water systems that use open-air reservoirs to hold "finished" water — water ready to drink — to either enclose the reservoirs or add another layer of treatment before the water comes out of faucets.

The rule is intended to reduce the possibility of contamination by biological agents that could enter water supplies by accident or poor oversight.

Two small reservoirs, in Mays Chapel and Pikesville, have been replaced by water storage tanks. A reservoir in Towson and another near Lake Montebello currently are being swapped for tanks. (Lake Montebello itself is a holding reservoir for untreated water.) The cost for those four locations is about $96 million.

The city now is hammering out plans for the Guilford, Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton reservoirs.

At the Guilford site, the city has planned for years to meet the federal mandate by draining and filling the reservoir, largely because 36 million gallons of water contained by an earthen dam there could cause substantial damage if the dam fails.

Under the Department of Public Works' current plan for Guilford, two tanks will be buried where the reservoir is now, creating hills in the center of what would become a field. There would be a pedestrian plaza created at the corner of East Old Cold Spring Lane and Reservoir Lane and a walking path would be constructed around the tanks, similar to the path that now encircles the reservoir.

"It has been 31/2 years of discussion between community members and the Bureau" of Water and Wastewater to reach agreement about the reservoir replacement plan, said Guilford Association President Tom Hobbs. But "there are still anxieties … existing in the community."

The community is preoccupied with what the rolling field is going to look like and how it would be kept up.

"There has been concern about the Bureau of Water's ability to maintain just the grass" at the reservoir as it is now, Hobbs said.

Boyne, too, expects the community will have problems getting Public Works to maintain the property after conversion. Maintaining a reservoir necessary for water service is one thing; maintaining green space around tanks may not be as important, she said.

The $44 million conversion of the Guilford site is not expected to begin for at least a year. Like the other reservoir conversion projects, all of the costs are to be paid with money collected from water bills. The Guilford conversion will be completed by February 2016, according to the city.

Druid Lake, at the southern tip of Druid Hill Park, also has an earthen dam. But the lake's enormity and the fact that the dam is not a major hazard has led Public Works to conclude it does not need to fill in the reservoir.

Initially, the city wanted to keep Druid Lake in the drinking water system and proposed a 10,000-square-foot treatment plant off Druid Park Lake Drive in February. Neighbors panned that idea because that stretch of road is being eyed for a community development project, said Rick Gwynallen, director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council.

So the city scrapped the idea of a post-storage treatment facility, said Rudy Chow, director of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater. Not only did the residents not like the location, but there's a chance that government regulations would be tightened further and water systems would be forced to store all finished water in enclosed tanks, he said.

"Ultimately, the safest thing to do was put the water in the tanks," Chow said.

The bureau concluded it could sink two water storage tanks into the ground and satisfy the needs of the water system, said Chow, who declined to estimate the project's cost because it has not been put out for bids.

Preliminary plans call for one of the tanks to be buried in the lake's shallow northwest corner, changing its shape slightly. The second tank would be buried in the park not far from the lake.

"When you look at it, it will look the same to passers-by, it will look the same to residents," Gwynallen said, but it will no longer be a reservoir.

Residents are excited about the potential for a recreational lake, Mosby agreed.

The plan has at least one opponent, though. Reservoir Hill resident Jim Floyd said he believes that the proposal is Druid Lake's "death knell" and that the post-storage treatment option would have better ensured the lake's future.

"If it is going to be taken out of the water system, its life expectancy is going to be a decade at best," Floyd said. "It is the equivalent of draining and closing Druid Lake."

For Floyd, two significant questions remain unanswered: Where is the lake's water going to come from once it is offline? And will the city be able to afford maintenance of a recreational lake?

The cost of maintaining Druid Lake's dam will not make sense to a city already struggling to keep recreation centers open, he said. And once a drought hits, he doubts the city will make it a priority to keep the lake filled.

"I think it's really short-sighted," Floyd said. "Everybody who is talking about using the lake for recreation is deluded."

Chow said that the bureau has some ideas about sources of water for the lake but that no concrete solutions can be offered because each option is being investigated. As for the cost of the maintaining the lake, that has yet to be determined, he said.

The water bureau is in discussions with the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, to see if the department will be willing to take the lake on. The parks department did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article.

A similar plan to install underground tanks has been proposed for Lake Ashburton, a little west of Druid Lake. The location of the tanks has not been established and the community has not been involved yet, Chow said.

Although Lake Ashburton will no longer hold drinking water, Public Works may find another use for that body of water, instead of turning it into a place for recreation, he said.

Kendra Abaidoo, who just ended her term as president of the Ashburton Area Association, said it would benefit the neighborhood if Lake Ashburton were open for recreation — as long as the city maintained it properly.

"Anything that would promote making this community more family-friendly is a value add," Abaidoo said