Drought spurs a rethinking of Carroll's long-range water supply; EPA's dislike of building new reservoirs puts county plans on hold


In response to this year's drought, the county commissioners want to revisit decades-old plans for three county reservoirs, as part of a long-range plan for future water supplies.

The suggestion for long-range planning was raised by Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge and supported by Commissioner Donald I. Dell at a quarterly meeting with mayors of the county's eight incorporated municipalities. The towns have faced problems in recent years varying from a lack of underground water, to contamination, to bountiful supplies with inadequate delivery systems.

"Because of the drought this year, the board of commissioners wants to do a long-range plan," said Dell, suggesting the plan cover 20 to 25 years, "so when we have these droughts, it won't be a crisis.

"Our reservoir projects have been on hold a number of years," he said, but the trend against reservoirs might have shifted with increased concern and demand for water. "Carroll County is changing. We need industry and we can't have industry without water."

Although the building of new reservoirs fell from favor with the federal government, especially the Environmental Protection Agency, the county continued to acquire land in the 1980s and 1990s for the proposed Gillis Falls and Union Mills reservoirs, said J. Michael Evans, the county's director of public works.

Piney Run Lake, north of Sykesville, could provide about 3.3 million gallons a day, but is used for recreation and has no water treatment plant, Evans said.

The proposed Gillis Falls reservoir near Mount Airy and the Union Mills reservoir north of Westminster would hold perhaps 20 billion gallons, but they exist only on maps and in a comprehensive water study dating from the 1980s by R. E. Wright and Associates -- considered the authority on Carroll County water.

Plans for the Union Mills reservoir, intended to serve the Hampstead and Manchester areas, were held up in part by concern about contaminants leaching from the John Owings landfill, which would be at its southwest bank, he said.

But the overriding reason was that county officials wanted to avoid a definite "no" from the EPA on their reservoir plans, said Evans, Gouge and Max Bair, the commissioner's longtime executive assistant.

Evans recalled a visit to the EPA office in Philadelphia to talk about the Gillis Falls reservoir -- only to back off.

"We decided if we pushed hard the answer would be no, and if you ever have a no answer on the record, it would be very hard to get it reversed," he said.

Yesterday, Gouge said she has been in touch with the offices of U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski and was encouraged to reassemble and update the old material.

"The studies will probably have to be repeated," she said, recalling that "we had counted all the insects, the birds, the fishes ."

"There is some misperception because of the drought that the state stopped Gillis Falls," she said, "but it was the federal government and the EPA. They were not doing any reservoirs at that time."

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