CAMP HILL, Pa. -- Confronting Baltimore's insistence on unrestricted access to water to meet growing metropolitan demands, regulators of the Susquehanna River Basin asserted their control over the Chesapeake Bay's largest tributary yesterday.
The three members of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, representing Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, voted unanimously to reject Baltimore's unfettered use of the river's water.
The vote at a meeting here came after five years of negotiations failed to produce a settlement.
"We offered the city what we believe to be a viable and comprehensive agreement," said Chairman James L. Hearn, director of Maryland's Water Management Administration and the state's representative.
"The commission remains open to that agreement, if the city is willing to abide by its terms," he said.
The terms of the proposed settlement were not disclosed.
While raising the possibility that the talks could be reopened, the commissioners left little doubt they are prepared to see the city's attorneys in court.
Neal M. Janey, Baltimore's outside counsel in the matter, issued a press release yesterday saying the panel's decision was based on "unfounded claims and assumptions."
"The city intends to vigorously defend its right in order to protect this vital resource for the millions of Marylanders who rely on this water every day,"Janey said.
The stakes in the confrontation are enormous because the city's water system serves 1.6 million customers in Baltimore and five surrounding counties.
The dispute concerns the water Baltimore draws from the
Conowingo Pool, a deep 8,650-acre lake formed by the Conowingo Dam connecting Harford and Cecil counties.
The city, which has periodically used Susquehanna River water as a backup to its reservoirs since 1965, claims the right to withdraw 250 million gallons a day under a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling.
The Susquehanna commission -- which administers a tri-state compact created by federal law -- contends that the amount could have disastrous effects during a drought.
The commission fears that a decrease in the flow of fresh water could damage the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay.
The panel also concluded that excessive pumping by Baltimore could lower the Conowingo Pool to levels that would force the shutdown of two power plants and the municipal water system of Chester, Pa.
Baltimore officials say past studies show the impact would be minimal even if the city pumped the full 250 million gallons a day -- a figure it has never approached.
In any case, the Susquehanna commission has no jurisdiction in the matter, Baltimore contends.
City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson said Baltimore's right to withdraw water from the Susquehanna was clearly protected by the General Assembly when it approved the river compact in the early 1970s.
"We don't believe that the commission has the authority to alter those rights in any way," he said.
The dispute originated in 1993 when the city signed a contract with Harford County to sell the booming jurisdiction 20 million gallons a day -- raising the possibility that it would use the Conowingo Pool as a regular water source rather than as a backup.
At the time, city consultants projected that the average use of water in Baltimore and the five counties would increase from 247 million gallons per day in 1992 to 360 million gallons per day by 2025.
To meet the increased demand the city would have to build a plant capable of treating 120 million gallons of Susquehanna River water per day, the consultants' report said.
Five years of negotiations
The projections alarmed the commission and other users of the Susquehanna, and five years of negotiations could not break the impasse.
The dispute finds Baltimore with few allies besides Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, whose own County Council opposes the city's position.
Pennsylvania officials, Conowingo-area residents, environmental groups and downstream towns joined Maryland government agencies in supporting the commission's action.
Hearn said the state Department of the Environment supported the commission because it has a responsibility to all Maryland residents in the Susquehanna basin -- not just Baltimore.
Acting in city's interests
"We are in effect acting in the city's best interests and hopefully they will recognize it," said Hearn.
The dispute adds one more grievance to the chilly relations between the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has endorsed Rehrmann for governor.
Commission officials said that their organization is apolitical and wouldn't speculate on the motives of the feuding Marylanders.
But R. Timothy Weston, special counsel to the commission, noted that "politics, like scotch, frequently is intermixed with water."
Sun staff writer Robert Guy Matthews contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 6/20/98