Parting the waters Susquehanna spat: Tristate commission and Baltimore need to compromise on river rights.


THE WATERS of the Susquehanna River are the lifeblood of the Chesapeake Bay. They nurture the watershed above the estuary in Pennsylvania and New York. They are not the property of one state or area.

To regulate use of this water, the Susquehanna River Basin Compact was created by federal law in 1970, with a commission to administer the tristate agreement.

Baltimore and the commission are locked in a dispute over water rights unresolved after five years of negotiations.

Baltimore claims virtually unrestricted draw on water from the Susquehanna at the pool just above Conowingo Dam.

It backs its claim with a 73-year-old agreement with the dam's power company owner, a 1967 amendment tacked on to the proposed compact by the General Assembly and a 1984 order of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Susquehanna commission, with strong support from the state of Maryland, denies this unbounded claim. It has made an offer (still secret) to the city, which was rejected. The matter is headed for court.

Not that Baltimore needs 250 million to 280 million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna. The 1.6 million customers in the city and five counties served by the regional system get most of their water from three suburban reservoirs. The Susquehanna draw is only a backup supply.

The dispute centers on 25 years from now, when the Baltimore region's needs are projected to increase by 120 million gallons daily. Most of that water would have to come from the Susquehanna.

Even that withdrawal would have little impact on the Susquehanna's flow, except in severe drought years.

The problem is that a court decision will only decide which party is legally correct; it won't forge a compromise.

Reasonable compromise is called for in this case. Baltimore's ability to serve a growing region's water needs should not be threatened. Neither should the city hold unlimited water rights, exempting it from environmental and consumer concerns of the entire watershed -- and of the Chesapeake Bay.

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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