With no prospects for long-term relief for South Carroll's water woes, Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he will probably opt for a new $15 million treatment plant at Piney Run Lake near Eldersburg.
Construction would take at least three years, but once completed, the plant could provide as much as 6 million gallons of water a day, double the amount available from the plant at Liberty Reservoir.
"If we need Piney Run, we might as well bite the bullet and do it," Dell told members of the Freedom Area Citizens Council last week.
The county's efforts to expand its Freedom plant, the primary water source for 18,000 South Carroll residents, are stalled in negotiations with Baltimore City, which owns the reservoir. Plans to build a series of wells lack state permits and cannot proceed.
Dell, who previously expressed skepticism about the Piney Run plant, arrived unannounced at the Freedom council's monthly meeting. Members of the group, which serves as an unofficial liaison between residents and county government, quizzed him on several issues, but water concerns dominated the talk.
Dell and his colleagues on the board of commissioners have been deliberating for several weeks on options to resolve a water crisis that affects about 30,000 residents. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier has said publicly several times that she favors the Piney Run plant.
"We have to do something and we have to make a decision fairly soon," said Dell. "We are determined to make a permanent fix to the water problems in South Carroll."
Without additional resources, South Carroll might soon be in its fourth consecutive summer of water shortages. This year, conservation and ample rainfall have made restrictions on outdoor use unnecessary.
"Daily usage is down about 350,000 gallons from last year," said Gary Horst, director of the county Department of Enterprise and Recreation Services. "I hope people are listening to the conservation message, but this is probably due to the regularity of rainfall and the amount."
The weather is keeping the ground moist, a condition favorable to establishing lawns and plantings, so residents can keep garden hoses in storage, Horst said.
"Logically, if this continues and we avoid sudden bad weeks of hot, dry weather, we can avoid restrictions, too," said Horst.
Piney Run, a 300-acre man-made lake, could present problems of its own, several residents told the commissioner. The lake is one- tenth the size of Liberty Reservoir and holds about 900 million gallons of water.
"Piney Run is too shallow and, with temperature changes, will be subject to seasonal overturns that affect taste and smell," said Steve Hudgins, an Eldersburg engineer and former county employee. "The cost of treatment there will be exorbitant."
Several residents said a new plant would cause water bills to soar and have an adverse effect on the lake, which is used largely for recreation. They would rather restrict development in what has, for 30 years, been the county's prime growth area.
"We have all been looking for ways to control growth," said John Culleton of Eldersburg. "The water shortage could be our last line of defense. Maybe, if there is not enough water, the county will have to shut off growth."
The county has told developers of several large projects in South Carroll, including a shopping center on Route 32, that it cannot guarantee a sufficient water supply.
Building a Piney Run plant was once considered prohibitively expensive, but the plan is emerging as the most viable option. The commissioners will meet with budget administrators next week to review construction and operating costs. It would be at least three years before the plant is operational.
It will take nearly that long to improve the Freedom plant, if the county can successfully negotiate with Baltimore. The city will not allow Carroll to draw more water from its reservoir or enlarge the Freedom plant until the county endorses a watershed protection pact.
"The clause doesn't let us zone for industry in the watershed," Dell said. "The limitation is drastic, given the watershed covers almost half the county. We can't let others control our industrial development."
The county has test drilled two potential wells, which could add as much as 500,000 gallons daily to the public water supply.