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Harford County

Bel Air looks for new solutions to drought issues

Winters Run, from which Maryland American Water Company draws its water to supply the Town of Bel Air, occasionally runs low in times of drought, though above it's running higher than usual. Maryland American is looking for an alternative water source when Winters Run is low.

The Town of Bel Air is considering new options for supplying water during droughts.

Bill Walsh, president of Maryland American Water, recently presented town commissioners with options to ensure the town is able to secure a water supply during times of drought.


"Winters Run is the main source of water supply to the town," Walsh said during a town commissioners work session Oct. 29. "But the supply is becoming less and less reliable."

When the town is unable to use Winters Run, it typically purchases its water through an agreement with Harford County, which in turn has an agreement with Baltimore. Baltimore's emergency water is pulled from the Susquehanna River.


Baltimore recently has had to scale back the amount of water it pulls from the Susquehanna River during times of low water, he said, creating a ripple effect and forcing the Town of Bel Air to have to look for alternative sources of dry weather water.

"Bel Air has got to develop its own independently, our own source of supply," Walsh said.

In a 1993 agreement, Baltimore was permitted to supply Harford County with 20 million gallons of water per day with the option to secure another 10 million gallons a day when available for situations like droughts, according to Jeffrey Raymond, spokesperson for the Baltimore department of public works. But in 2012, the agreement was amended and Harford County will only be able to secure an additional 5 million gallons a day.

Sherrie Johnson, spokesperson for Harford County, said the decrease in water supply from Baltimore is not an issue for the county. She said the county will still be able to meet its water needs.

Benjamin Pratt, water resource engineer for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, said the commission would only ask Baltimore to scale back its water consumption if a serious drought emergency was declared in Maryland.

"The only time the commission would declare a drought emergency is in extreme conditions to protect the resource overall," Pratt said.

About 4,800 residents in Bel Air and other parts of Harford County are serviced through Maryland American Water, which is permitted a capacity of 2.72 million gallons a day.

In the past five years, Maryland American Water customer demands have been around 1.46 million gallons a day and peaked at 1.90 million gallons a day.


Walsh said the Town of Bel Air has several options, including using the nearest water supply, developing a well or quarry system or partnering with a neighboring county.

He said most likely the town will end up using a combination of options looking for a "low-cost, but reliable source of supply."

Chris Schlehr, Bel Air town administrator, said the town has only experienced about two or three droughts in the past 12 years and droughts are not a common concern in the area.

The most devastating drought to hit Bel Air was in 2002, when the town experienced 30 days of water deficiency.

Normal precipitation for Maryland is about .1 inches of rain per day (which is to say about 36 inches a year), according to Greg Schoor, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Every day the area does not meet this goal causes a deficiency in precipitation, he said.

Last February, the Harford County Health Department urged a hold on issuing new building permits in Bel Air until the town could find a solution to the water supply issue.

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"We are currently working on either a short-term agreement to allow for building permits to be issued or allow the county to issue a building moratorium until we find a long-term solution to the problem," Walsh said.

It could take three to five years for the town of Bel Air to decide on a water supply alternative and address the issue, Walsh said.

While American Water is looking for a solution to the town's drought issues, the county is looking into establishing a regional water and sewer authority, which would oversee all water and sewer operations in Harford County.

A feasibility study has been completed and Harford County Executive David Craig and other local officials are creating a "paper authority" and once it's in place spend the next few years acquiring funding and working to transfer the assets, including pipes, pumps and treatment facilities, to the Water and Sewer Authority, which Craig described earlier this year as a "quasi-governmental agency."

Samantha Villegas, external affairs consultant for Maryland American Water, said American Water hopes to be part of the county's regional water supply program.

"Maryland American water's position is to be a part of it; we're in support of a regional water solution," Villegas said. "The water situation is a regional problem and the solution needs to be regional, too."


Villegas said while droughts only typically hit the area every seven to 10 years, climate change is impacting how the water supply is being used even in normal situations. She said it is important for American Water to consider long-term solutions to the water problem in Bel Air and Harford County.