With a never-say-dry attitude, Carroll County officials spent 90 minutes here Friday persuading top brass from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that South Carroll's growth depends on turning Gillis Falls into a reservoir.

Although the EPA officials committed the agency to nothing, the County Commissioners and key staff who went with them were determined not to leave without hope.

"We are interested in doing whatever we can to make it right," Commissioner Julia W. Gouge told EPA regional administrator Edwin Erickson and eight of his staff members who met with the Carroll group.

The obstacle to developing the stream into drinking water for 12,500homes in the growing Mount Airy area is its pristine nature and the wetlands that surround it.

The EPA's responsibility will be to protect the stream and wetlands and make the county prove there are no viable alternatives for water.

Commissioners went into the meeting hoping for some indication of what to do to avoid a rejection by the EPA once the project passes state hurdles.

Erickson, the top man for EPA's Region III, which includes Maryland, repeatedly said his staff couldn't talk in detail about the project until it is formally submitted to the agency.

"The reality is we're hearing on a continualbasis about large projects in Colorado (and elsewhere) that have been turned down," Gouge said. "What we need to know about those vetoes is, are we in the same category? Different? How would it be?"

"I can't answer that," Erickson said. "We are not in the business to stopprojects. The intention of the law is to protect the environment."

The brown trout population in Gillis Falls is an indication the stream is of the highest quality, because that species requires much oxygen and moving water to live and spawn.

Gillis Falls and the wetlands around it are as clean as they are, Gouge said, because the county has spent about $2 million since the 1970s to buy most of the 1,200acres of surrounding farmland for the reservoir and let it revert toits natural state.

"We appreciate that," said Greene A. Jones, director of EPA's Environmental Services Division.

But once that land and stream reached their current high quality, EPA policy and the law make rare exceptions for "downgrading" them, or reducing that quality, he said.

Carroll County will have to convince the EPA that the demand for water, and the social and economic impact of not gettingit from Gillis Falls, are great enough to justify flooding the wetlands around it and disturbing the quality of the stream.

"Attempts to make dry land wet land, by and large, have been unsuccessful," Jones said.

Gouge said other plans will be more costly in the long run. Water elsewhere in the county is already committed to other growthareas, and growth should be concentrated in the municipalities to protect farmland and conservation areas.

"We're doing the job of putting growth where it should be," Gouge said.

She added that Carroll residents would be in "the biggest uproar that you've ever seen" athaving to buy more water from Liberty Reservoir, which is partly in Carroll but the rights to which were sold to Baltimore.

"You will hear people say our birthright was sold by commissioners years ago," she said. "It's our land, our area, it should have been our water, and yet we have to ask to do anything at any time."

She said buying water from Baltimore would put the county at the mercy of elected officials there.

Carroll Director of Permits and Regulations Michael Evans said he remains optimistic that the county will be able to satisfy the EPA about the need for the water and the work required to replace the wetlands.

Technology exists to keep water moving for the trout, said K. Marlene Conaway, assistant planning director for the county.

"Reservoirs are serious business. They permanently and irrevocably alter the environment," Jones said.

"Wetlands perform manyecological, biological and human functions," he said. "They prevent floods, provide a habitat for wildlife, a sanctuary for endangered plants."

If the EPA vetoes the project, Evans said, "I don't know what our strategy would be -- perhaps to change the regulations."

Conaway said several U.S. senators are questioning the Clean Water Act and "at what point we need to start worrying about people as well as the environment. Even if they turn us down, nothing is forever."

Construction costs for the reservoir would be about $9 million, with another $20 million to build a water treatment plant and set up pipes and other equipment to get the water to homes.

The county would sell a bond issue for the money, Conaway said.

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