Water plant plan is likely to bog down


Carroll County's plans to construct a water-treatment plant at popular Piney Run Reservoir may take longer and cost more than county officials expect.

Given the cost, public opposition and state environmental requirements, building a water-treatment plant at South Carroll's Piney Run Reservoir by 2004 - a goal set by two county commissioners - is unlikely, Maryland officials say.

During the two months since Robin Bartlett Frazier and Donald I. Dell outvoted fellow Carroll Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge on building Piney Run, cost estimates have risen from $12 million to $13.5 and could reach $16 million, the original estimate of the cost for a new treatment plant done by an engineering consultant in 1996.

The treatment plant project is not included in the county's budget and must pass stringent, time-consuming state reviews in addition to mounting opposition from residents concerned that the project will infringe on a favorite recreational area.

"The reality is, we waited close to a year for state permits to build one well in South Carroll, and we are still waiting for a wetlands permit," said Gouge. "We don't know how long the state will take for the plant, and they can still hold it up."

For development to continue in Carroll's major growth area, which includes more than 30,000 residents in Eldersburg and Sykesville, the county must eventually double the public water supply. Carroll draws 3 million gallons a day from Liberty Reservoir.

Gouge supports increasing the draw from Liberty to 6 million gallons and wants to expand the county's treatment plant on that reservoir. The cost for that is estimated at $11 million. The county pays Baltimore city, which owns the reservoir, 24 cents for each 1,000 gallons of water it draws from Liberty.

Baltimore officials, however, refuse to approve those upgrades unless the county endorses the Reservoir Watershed Protection Agreement. Gouge is willing to sign the document, but Dell and Frazier have said repeatedly that the agreement hinders their authority to rezone land in the watershed, particularly land for industrial development.

Building a plant when one is viable and expandable, as is the one at Liberty, can be a costly and impractical endeavor, said officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has authority over such projects.

"Building is not a fast process, and there are not many brand-new plants or water sources," said Barry K. O'Brien, chief of the engineering and technical assistance division at the department. "Most systems are able to expand. It is more cost-effective. Economics and the amount of preliminary work are primary reasons why you don't see too many new plants."

Time-consuming process

Throughout the state, there are about 50 major water treatment plants. Frostburg built the newest one, which came on line three years ago and serves about 12,000 residents in and around that Allegany County city. It cost $9 million and treats on average 1.5 million gallons daily - half the amount Piney Run would treat.

Frostburg's construction plan had the full cooperation of the state, which worked closely with the municipality on funding and environmental issues.

"The plant still took years," said Chris Hovatter, Frostburg's director of public works. "Funding and wetland mitigation were the biggest parts. Environmental regulations are a whole bunch tougher than they were several years ago."

The construction took about 18 months, but the preliminary work - permits, design, environmental issues - added years to the project, time that increased the estimated costs, Hovatter said.

A new high-yield well in Sykesville, expected to be in operation by Thanksgiving, will give the county time to evaluate all options, Gouge said.

"We do not know if Piney Run can pass all the environmental tests, and we have not asked the state what we need," said Gouge. "Why rush? We must be careful about what we do."

Gouge said she fears that the plant will destroy recreation at Piney Run, "a family-oriented place, which trains people on how to take care of the land."

Nearly 'out of water'

The county public works director said development in South Carroll, which for years has absorbed one-third of all the county's new housing, cannot continue at its present pace without more water.

"We have done graphs, and we are about out of water," said Doug Myers, Carroll's acting director of public works. "We have to look at what we have and what our needs are going to be and set up a plan."

The county built the 300-acre Piney Run Lake nearly 30 years ago. In the county's water and sewer master plan, the lake was always intended for use as a source of drinking water. Dell and Frazier say the timing is right to put that master plan into effect.

South Carroll's population has tripled since the Liberty treatment plant was built, and more development has been approved. Within the next decade, possibly as early as 2006, the area could need as much as 6.2 million gallons of water daily.

"In the long run, Piney Run is the least costly and the most cost-effective," said Frazier. "The lake is nearly 2 billion gallons, and the max we will withdraw is 3 million gallons a day. We are convinced there will be no negative impact on recreation."

Even in times of drought and minimal flow to the lake, the water level will drop no more than a foot, she said. Keeping two plants in operation at two sites gives the county operational flexibility and reliability, she said.

Operating by 2004?

The county would be negligent if it did not have the plant on line by 2004, Frazier said recently. But numerous tests and studies must be made before the state will issue permits. Construction could take at least two years.

To determine water quality and to ascertain the type of treatment needed, the state requires samples, preferably taken through four seasons, and an evaluation of the yield, O'Brien said. The county has closely monitored Piney Run since 1993 and could provide the state documentation of water quality, officials said.

"Ideally, the water source should be relatively free from contamination, stable, and should provide a sustainable, safe yield throughout the year," said O'Brien. "We would require long-term data, as much as 10 years' worth."

The state also might require a pilot study and a model of the new plant from engineers. Frostburg had to meet similar requirements, said O'Brien.

"It is best to do the pilot under a worst-case scenario," said O'Brien. "Water is toughest to treat when it is very cold, following storms and when there is turn-over."

In addition to going through studies of water quality, the project will go through several long reviews at the environment department. The county then must prepare detailed applications for state appropriation and construction permits. At least four state agencies must approve these applications, and any of the agencies could put up roadblocks.

Public hearings likely

Public outcry also could delay the project. When the state advertises its intention to issue the permits, anyone who objects can request a public hearing. Many South Carroll residents have said they would demand hearings.

"MDE considers any legitimate comments, and a large public outcry could affect the project," said Rich McIntyre, department spokesman. "Everything is a factor, including the impact on existing wells."

Before the plant could deliver water to its customers, tests must be performed on the intake, transmission mains, storage tanks and waste that the facility might discharge.

The plant probably would be built on land at the southwestern end of the lake near Hollenberry Road. Officials have said they have obtained the rights of way for an access road from Obrecht Road. But, Gouge said last week, the county has not secured land for pipelines.

"Even if we begin the redesign this fall and the permitting process went well, it would be at least the end of 2003 before construction was completed," said Myers, adding that his time line was optimistic.

Myers has worked in Carroll for a little more than a year and was appointed acting director last month. He previously supervised about 15 treatment plants for the state.

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