The first shovelfuls of dirt were tossed Wednesday morning on a $15 million, one-and-a-half to two-year project to build a reservoir to store a backup water supply for the Town of Bel Air.
Maryland American Water, a private company that supplies drinking water to the Town of Bel Air, is overseeing the construction of the facility, which the company calls an impoundment.
"It's a very exciting day for us," Barry Suits, president of Maryland American Water, said during the groundbreaking ceremony.
The ceremony happened under a tent overlooking the rolling hills of the former Mt. Soma farm fields south of Bel Air. Construction vehicles sat nearby.
Suits said later that the work of earth moving will start in the coming days and weeks.
The impoundment, which is scheduled to be in service in early 2019, has been designed to hold 90 million gallons of water taken from the nearby Winters Run stream — the primary water source for Maryland American's treatment plant — enough for a 100-day supply.
The facility is being built on 68 acres that had been part of the historic Mt. Somafarm off of Route 1. The treatment plan, which is off of Route 1, is a short distance from the property.
The impoundment is the result of discussions among the town, Harford County and the Maryland Department of the Environment regarding the need to have a backup water supply for the town in case of a drought or a disaster that contaminates the stream. New development in Bel Air was severely curtailed in 2013 and 2014 as local and state officials worked out how to secure a water backup.
"History is being made, and I am in awe to be here to witness an act that will save a small town from what could be its eventual demise were it robbed of one its most valuable resources — water," Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane said.
Suits, along with Operations Manager Richard Corbi, lauded the cooperation among the company, local and state officials, plus the community, that has helped move the project forward.
"These partnerships today, and in the future, are critical to the success of the project," Corbi said.
Corbi noted Ben Grumbles, Maryland's Secretary of the Environment, has praised the company's "commitment to Maryland and water sustainability."
"This project is about water sustainability and a model for meeting the water supply needs of a community," he said.
Horacio Tablada, deputy secretary of the MDE, cited Maryland American as an example of public-private partnerships that are needed in the future to resolve issues such as water supply.
"This company has been invested in the town for many years, and this is the next logical step, to create for future generations the sustainable water resources that are needed for everyone to grow and for the quality of life that we all maintain," he said.
Tablada noted the MDE has approved all permits needed before construction could start. He also praised the low-interest, revolving fund loan that the state provided to Maryland American to help build the impoundment.
"We like to put our money where we speak," he said.
The state gave Maryland American a loan of up to $3.85 million, to be repaid over 30 years with an annual interest rate of 1.2 percent, Saeid Kasraei, administrator of MDE's Water Supply Program, said later.
Suits, the Maryland American president, said later that the loan means lower borrowing costs for the company, which in turn lowers the cost of the project for the community.
Customer rates will be adjusted to help recover construction costs, but that would not take effect until the impoundment goes into service, pending approval by the Maryland Public Service Commission, according to a company news release.
The impoundment, which will cover 11.5 acres, will be surrounded by an earthen dam — company officials have said previously that it will be 61 feet high.
The reservoir has been designed so it can be connected to the water treatment plant, and water can be drawn when needed, sent through the treatment process and then out to customers.
The land had been sold to Harford County by the Amoss family in 1996 with the intent that it be developed as a park, but the park did not come to fruition.
The county sold the acreage to Maryland American in 2015 to develop the impoundment.
Bane acknowledged the Amoss family; Bill Amoss, who heads up the county's agricultural land preservation program, was present for the ceremony.
His ancestor, English immigrant William Amos, established Mt. Soma in the early 1700s. The farm eventually encompassed about 1,200 acres, but parts of it have been sold off for residential and commercial development over the years.
"Getting here has not been easy for you, because for you, this is sacred ground, bought and worked by those who wanted to build a future for themselves and their posterity," Bane said.
Wednesday's ceremony took place across from the Park at Winters Run apartment complex, a 288-unit complex built on another section of the farm.
The historic Mt. Soma barn, an aging structure, on which the county recently completed a structural analysis, sat behind the audience. County officials gave visitors short tours of the barn.
Glassman is planning to visit the barn and talk with engineers, according to county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby.
"What the Glassman administration would like to do, eventually, is make it open to the public, but of course we want to be certain it is safe to do so," she said.
The impoundment will be a secured facility, and it will not be open for public recreation. Maryland American must sell any of the unused 68 acres back to the county, according to the legislation approved by the County Council to sell the land for the impoundment.
That land would be developed, along with the barn, for passive public use once the impoundment is completed.
Bill Amoss said the news two years ago that the land had been sold to Maryland American was a "shock" and "a great concern" for his family.
Amoss resides in Fallston, and other descendants of William Amos live all over the country.
He said Maryland American and county officials have worked with the family to make sure they are part of the planning process for the impoundment and will remain involved when the unused acres go back to the county and the park is developed.
"We certainly will be a part of that, and we appreciate that," he said.
He said there are about 1,000 people who are part of the Amoss family mailing list.
"It would be a really exciting reunion, to come back to the original site," he said.