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Community Voices (Wack): Commissioners all wet in arguing about Westminster water issues

Recent news coverage of water resource discord between County officials and the Mayor and Council of the City of Westminster point out once again the importance of understanding the reality of our water situation. Westminster officials continue to pursue the proper, prudent policy, and the County’s inability to adapt is more a function of their refusal or inability to grasp that water in Carroll County is no longer an infinite, cheap resource.

None of this is new, and county officials have been in the loop since April 2007 when the city was first placed under a consent decree by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for a deficit in our water supply of 797,000 gallons per day. This froze all new development in the city until MDE was satisfied the City was making adequate progress developing new water sources, promoting conservation, and identifying sources of water leakage from the system. This was all summarized in the 2009 comprehensive plan, which was developed with input from the county, shared with the county, and is publicly available. These have all been update several times since, and all shared with the county.

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All of Carroll County is dependent on one thing for our water supply: rainfall. Unfortunately, we can’t control how much rain we get, and we know from past experience that occasionally we’ll have droughts so extreme, like in 2001-2002, that our groundwater is depleted. During that drought, the city’s water system was dangerously close to failing, and that is why MDE changed the way they calculate the requirements for the capacity of the system.

If you think of water as money (and in many ways, it is), rainfall are the deposits, the groundwater reserves beneath our community are the account, and all our wells are the ATMs we use to make withdrawals.

Just building more wells only depletes our ground water faster, just like taking more money from different ATMs only runs down your bank account quicker. Wells don’t create water just like ATMs don’t create money. When it’s raining, the account is replenished, so no problem. But when the rains stops, and it will again, if the water system is over-committed, we will have serious trouble.

What is the most prudent, conservative way to manage a limited, precious resource? You make a budget, and you stick to it. That’s effectively what the Westminster Water Allocation Policy accomplishes. The allocation policy plans for new demands for water over the next 7 years, and makes tentative allotments to residential and commercial uses for each year, inside and outside the city. This way, developers, banks, planners, and citizens have some idea how much water will be available for what uses, and when. This sort of predictability is essential for ensuring a stable development environment.

The city has been working for more than a decade in close collaboration with MDE and the county to develop new wells and add capacity to the system, but that takes time and money. Again, county officials are well aware of these efforts, and often partner with the city to advance them.

When the Commissioners complain about city officials and water, they are effectively shouting, “We want more money! Just build more ATMS!” That’s just not how this works, and they know it.

There are two reasons for what’s really going on. The first is that the commissioners are posturing about this to placate county staff expecting water allocations for projects they haven’t coordinated with the city. Making commitments for city water without consulting the city about how it fits in the budget is a recipe for conflict. More importantly, this behavior ignores the new reality that water is no longer infinite and free, and the city controls the only water treatment and distribution system in the greater Westminster area. That means the county has no choice other than working with the city to figure out how to allocate limited water.

Councilman Yingling and Mayor Dominick are taking exactly the right approach to our water challenges. The only way the county and the city can figure out how much water is available for what purposes, find and develop new, sustainable sources, and establish common priorities, is by meeting, communicating, and negotiating. Tantrums, name-calling, and table pounding will get the county exactly nothing. The days of unlimited water are gone, and never coming back.

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Robert Wack served on the Westminster Common Council from 2003 to 2019. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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