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‘For future generations,’ Westminster staff outline challenges, next steps for city water and sewer systems

Westminster staff recalled challenging two decades for the city’s water and sewer resources, and summarized potential solutions, at an informational meeting.

City staff spoke about public works initiatives they hope will “ensure water and sewer capacity for future generations.”

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Members of the Board of County Commissioners have said at recent meetings that they felt the municipality and the county were out of sync on issues surrounding water allocation and development in Westminster.

Two county commissioners — Dennis Frazier, R-District 3 and Eric Bouchat, R-District 4 — attended the Wednesday meeting.

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Westminster Common Council President Greg Pecoraro thanked them for coming, saying, “It’s very important that the county understand what we’re doing and how we’re arriving at the decisions we’re making. We’re very pleased you’re here tonight and able to communicate some of this to your colleagues when you have the opportunity.”

The full video of the meeting, held Dec. 11, 2019, runs less than 30 minutes and is available to watch on the YouTube channel for the Community Media Center.

No one made questions or comments during the question-and-answer session that followed the meeting.

Projects in progress

With hopes to loosen the tight budget for water and sewer allocations in coming years, the city is pursuing several projects.

The most immediate water project deals with the Gesell property well, which came online as a city water source in 2018. In the process of getting it approved, though, the city discovered that surface water from Little Pipe Creek was affecting the quality of the well’s water.

The water required more filtration, reducing the amount of water the system was allowed to draw from that source.

The city decided to relocate the stream bed of Little Pipe Creek, and the project was completed earlier this year. Now the city is conducting a pump test to see how much water they can safely draw from the Gesell well. As Glass has shared in regular updates at council meetings, the results have been promising for an increase in gallons per day (GPD) that can be drawn from the well.

Another potential water source is Medford Quarry. The quarry’s owners have an agreement with the city that the water may be used in the event that the governor declares a drought emergency. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) currently prohibits the use of this source for growth projects.

The city and the private owners of the quarry are in ongoing negotiations to draw up a possible agreement for some water for growth projects, while keeping a sufficient amount in reserve for emergency use.

The terms of this agreement and the amount it would cost the city to meet the quarry owners’ terms for assuming liability or paying for infrastructure are still under negotiation.

The city would also have to undergo an approval process with MDE.

Glass said county employees have done significant work to assist with the Gesell property well project and the Medford Quarry project.

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The most long-term potential solution regarding water, one that would take several years to come to fruition, is a water reuse initiative.

The practice, more common in the western U.S., would involve already-treated and reclaimed water from the wastewater treatment plant being treated again through “state-of-the-art membrane and advanced oxidation processes," Glass said. The highly treated water would be added to the natural waters in the city’s 121.8-million-gallon raw water reservoir.

The city is in the approval process for a water re-use pilot, which will be evaluated to see if a larger project should go forward. The pilot, which hasn’t started yet, is expected to take eight months or so, Glass said.

City officials hope a water reuse program could be a sustainable and drought-resistant method to keep the city’s reservoir full at all times.

City council members have said previously that simply increasing water resources for the city will not be enough to avoid interruption of future development. Another factor that figures prominently in any future development projects is the city’s sewer infrastructure.

The largest-cost project in Westminster history is the project overhauling the city’s wastewater treatment plant to meet standards that aim to improve water quality and reduce nutrients discharged from wastewater treatment plants that harm the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

The project began in the early weeks of 2019, and city officials estimate the full length of the project at 43 months from start to finish.

“I do want to note that this project, even though it is incredibly expensive, will not increase the physical capacity of our wastewater treatment plant,” City Administrator Barbara Matthews said during the presentation.

After the upgrade is complete, the city hopes to have MDE re-evaluate the amount of water the facility is permitted to treat and move per day.

Another ongoing project is an inflow and infiltration project to address defects in pipes throughout the wastewater system that allow other water to infiltrate and take up capacity.

All wastewater systems suffer from inflow and infiltration, Glass said, but the improvements in Westminster “have provided rather significant results to date and have decreased plant flows to upwards of 900,000 GPD. Now, it should be understood that [inflow and infiltration] work is an ongoing process. And with that, there will likely never be a day when there is zero inflow or infiltration.”

He said the results of the repairs are “compounding,” and save not only wastewater capacity, but energy and chemical costs.

History

Pecoraro said the council has been meeting to address the water and sewer situation since 2002, a year of drought for the area.

Jeff Glass, director of public works for the city, said the water scarcity led the city to enact water restrictions and even pay to ship in water from other areas. They strictly limited building permits and approval of subdivision plats.

The city came under a consent order with the MDE in April 2007.

According to previous Times reporting, in 2006, MDE recommended a moratorium, or halt, on building in the city because it was not confident the city could handle another drought without restricting or shipping in outside water again.

The 2007 consent order lifted the building freeze by releasing some water for allocations to the city, and gave the city a task list to overhaul its drought preparedness and identify potential new water sources. The task included completing a technical study, evaluating sources of unaccounted-for water and submitting a water loss reduction plan and a water conservation plan to MDE.

The consent order was updated in 2008 to release more water after the city demonstrated progress.

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The city’s own water allocation policy is separate, Matthews said.

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The policy was adopted in March 2018 after a period of several months when the city suspended all applications for new net water allocations due to unexpected setbacks in bringing a new water source online. This put residential and business projects on hold from summer 2017 until March 2018, when the Gesell well was approved to come online.

The council also approved a sewer allocation policy at that time. Both prioritize projects within city limits, commercial industrial projects that will increase tax revenue for the city and multifamily residential projects, Matthews said.

Projects stalled during the nine-month suspension were addressed first. Then the remaining resources were spaced out over seven years.

Matthews said, “We have essentially self-constrained that allocation of our water resources to make sure we didn’t find ourselves in another application suspension period.”

The policy comes with a Master Distribution Chart, the tool that city staff uses to visualize what resources are available. The latest version of this ever-changing document is available by contacting the city’s planning department.

Matthews said that in her three years with the city, water and sewer capacity has been a priority of the mayor and council, “formalized in both the city’s adopted strategic plan, as well as the financial investment they have made every year in the city’s budget.”

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