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Bel Air reservoir project lauded by town and county officials, but neighbors remain concerned

The MDE hosted a public hearing Thursday on Maryland American Water's proposed 124 million gallon reservoir, which would be built outside Bel Air and used to hold a backup water supply for its local customers in case of emergency. Nearby residents are concerned about environmental impacts and the risk to public safety if the reservoir walls are breached.

A massive reservoir that Bel Air's water provider wants to build on a section of the Mt. Soma property outside of town was touted Thursday as a key component to ensure a backup water supply and support economic development, but neighbors expressed many concerns about safety and environmental impacts.

Maryland American Water is a private company that operates a water treatment plant off of Route 1 north of Mt. Soma to treat water drawn from the Winters Run stream. The company is seeking state approval to build the reservoir on 68 acres it purchased from Harford County government last year.

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About 35 people, including Fallston and Bel Air residents, town and county elected leaders and department heads and Maryland Department of the Environment staff, attended the two-hour public hearing at Bel Air Town Hall.

The MDE, which would grant – if approved – three permits, hosted the meeting. Maryland American officials, including company President Barry Suits, presented their reasons for wanting the reservoir, or upland impoundment – mainly to hold a 100-day reserve supply of drinking water in case the area experiences a major drought, or if Winters Run is contaminated.

Company representatives say the reservoir will hold 90 million gallons.

"There couldn't be a better solution relative to backup and redundancy," Suits said.

The company plans to start construction in the late spring of 2017, pending approval of the permits, and finish construction in 2019, according to Suits.

Maryland American is seeking a waterways construction permit, water use and appropriation permit to increase the amount of water taken from the stream and a non-tidal wetland and waterways permit. The construction permit covers the 62-foot high earthen dam that will contain the water on plain above the stream valley.

Elected and community leaders expressed their support, including Bel Air Mayor Susan Burdette, County Councilman Jim McMahan, town department heads and Craig Ward, a member of the town's Economic and Community Development Commission and board president of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance.

Mike Pons, of Country Life Farm near Bel Air, expresses his concerns about Maryland American Water's plans to built a 124 million gallon reservoir in the vicinity of his farm. The Maryland Department of the Environment hosted a public hearing on the project Thursday at Bel Air Town Hall.
Mike Pons, of Country Life Farm near Bel Air, expresses his concerns about Maryland American Water's plans to built a 124 million gallon reservoir in the vicinity of his farm. The Maryland Department of the Environment hosted a public hearing on the project Thursday at Bel Air Town Hall. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

They lauded Maryland American for being transparent with the local governments, and they promoted the impoundment to ensure the town has enough water to support economic development, plus a source of potable drinking water in an emergency.

"I really have to commend Maryland American, the Town of Bel Air, Harford County and MDE for the cooperation that has happened," Ward said.

Bel Air Economic Development Director Trish Heidenreich echoed state officials' comments about making Maryland more business friendly.

"In order to be open for business, and in order to work with the state and work toward that goal we have to have a water supply," she said.

McMahan discussed his support for the council's 2015 resolution declaring the 68 acres surplus and authorizing the conveyance to Maryland American for $549,000.

McMahan, who grew up in Bel Air, recalled how the town suffered through a drought in 1954 and how many residents in the northern end of town did not have any water. The Army had to provide purified drinking water. That was when the town's water supply was switched from Bynum Run, northeast of town, to Winters Run on the west.

"I believe this company is responsible, and I know that it is the right thing for the future," McMahan said.

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Those who shared their concerns included several members of the Pons family, which operates Country Life Farm across Route 1 from Mt. Soma.

"We'll be watching and paying attention," Mike Pons said. "It's our livelihood; it's how our family survives."

Mike Pons and other members of his family have spoken out about other major developments happening around his family's thoroughbred horse breeding farm at Route 1 and Old Joppa Road, including a 288-unit apartment complex being built across Route 1 and a proposed commercial development across Old Joppa Road.

"We're all neighbors," Pons said. "I just want to make sure we can all agree to get along."

He expressed concerns about the impact to groundwater, as many residents in that area get their drinking water from wells, how construction would affect neighbors and whether the reservoir's earthen walls could hold the weight of 124 million gallons of water.

"I'm concerned that something may cause that dam to breach...that would be like a huge battering ram coming at us at several hundred miles an hour," Pons said.

Tony Nokovich, who is in charge of practice lead engineering for Maryland American, said the lined reservoir is being designed to handle extreme rain events.

"It's unlikely you would have a breach of the wall of the impoundment," Suits said.

Pons' daughter, Elizabeth, and son, David, expressed their concerns about the impoundment, too.

Elizabeth Pons is concerned about light pollution and asked Suits if the company would fulfill its pledge to build a public park and walking trail within the property, which has been actively farmed for decades.

Suits said Maryland American is working with county agencies and community groups on the recreational aspects of the project.

Elizabeth Pons also noted local officials' comments about how the impoundment would support economic development in the area

"I think that this is just going to be a vicious cycle," she said of the potential the reservoir would be expanded to meet additional growth.

David Pons asked company officials how Maryland American would be held accountable for its pledges to the community.

Suits said residents can contact Maryland American about any issues, as well as municipal and county officials, the MDE and the state's Public Utilities Commission.

Fallston residents Tracey Slaughter and Morita Bruce, who is president of the Friends of Harford advocacy group, expressed concerns about the impact on endangered species, plus the risk of pulling sediment and contaminants from Winters Run into the reservoir.

More information about the impoundment project is available at Maryland American's website or its social media pages.

Members of the public can submit comments to the MDE through 5 p.m. on Nov. 17. Comments can be sent to John Roche, the senior regulatory and compliance engineer with MDE's dam safety division, via email to john.roche@maryland.gov or by mail to: Mr. John Roche, P.E., Dam Safety Division, Maryland Department of the Environment, 1800 Washington Blvd., Room 440, Baltimore, MD, 21230.

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