With only a few details to be worked out, the county commissioners have set a date to sign an agreement to help protect the Liberty Reservoir watershed - and, indirectly, augment the water supply for Carroll residents.
The commissioners, apparently within reach of an understanding with Baltimore City officials on conditions within the metropolitan area's Watershed Protection Agreement, have set Feb. 24 for a formal signing of the document.
By signing the document, the commissioners would renew a promise originally made by the county in 1984 to safeguard watershed areas from rampant development. The renewed agreement also could mean that the state would act swiftly on Carroll's request to build wells to supply more water to South Carroll, its most populous area, and it could greatly enhance the county's bargaining position as it tries to negotiate for more water from the city. The city owns Liberty Reservoir, the source of drinking water for nearly 2 million people, including about 20,000 in South Carroll.
"This signals improvements in regional cooperation on a broad scale," said Frank Johnson, special assistant to Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners. "The date for the signing is on the calendar and it will be a big day for Carroll County and the whole region."
The county has a few issues to work out with the city, but nothing that would delay the signing, which is expected to draw officials from Baltimore city and county and the state, said Gouge.
"I think it will all come together," Gouge said. "We want to restate our agreement with the city and renew our contract for purchasing raw water."
Gouge said she spoke to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley at a meeting of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council on Tuesday and found him supportive.
"The mayor assured me that he would talk to his public works director about our issues," Gouge said. "Everything is all out there on the table and I am certain we can get it all straightened out."
The county can draw up to 3 million gallons a day from Liberty Reservoir, a 45 billion gallon lake along Carroll's southern border with Baltimore County. Carroll would like to double that amount.
"We would like an additional 3 million gallons in the future," Gouge said. "We don't need that much now, but peak usage in the future is expected to be 6.4 million gallons a day."
Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works, said the city's once-strained relationship with the county has improved significantly.
"We will be discussing all the matters but we don't want to reveal the specifics," Kocher said. "I will say that everything is going in a positive direction and we have set the date [on] the director's and the mayor's calendar."
The county has not asked for any changes to the nearly 20-year-old agreement, but it might request amendments to a series of environmental protection strategies that the metropolitan council might add to the document, Gouge said. Those measures, such as stream buffers, could further safeguard waterways from runoff from farms, businesses and residences.
"The idea is to get the signatures and then get to work on the strategies," said James Slater, Carroll's environmental compliance specialist. "This needs to be a living document, the subject of good debate and including new developments."
Details contained in any amendments could depend on the results of several reservoir and stream studies that have yet to be completed in Carroll and Baltimore counties.
"Whatever needs to be done as far as protections will all be prefaced on the results of these studies," Gouge said. "It could mean we would implement stronger measures or continue at the same pace."
Carroll used a $44,000 state grant last year to study several streams that feed into Liberty Reservoir, testing them for the effects of runoff and for the presence of elements that could effect the health of the water. Researchers have completed the fieldwork, but are compiling the information.
The city and the surrounding counties put together the nonbinding watershed protection agreement in 1984 and have periodically reaffirmed their support for it. But, about eight years ago, Carroll's commissioners refused to endorse the document, saying it infringed on their land-use authority.
The Liberty watershed covers more than one-third of the county and includes five of its planned growth areas.
The commissioners' refusal to renew support for the agreement was seen by surrounding jurisdictions, and the state, as an effort to encourage widespread development in the watershed. The commissioners' stance seemed to stymie their efforts to procure more water for South Carroll, an area troubled by persistent water shortages.
The city curtailed negotiations to expand a treatment plant on Liberty Reservoir. The state refused to issue a construction permit for a proposed $16 million treatment plant on Piney Run Lake and made approval of a series of wells in South Carroll contingent on the commissioners' signatures on the agreement.
The county treats the Liberty water at its plant on the reservoir and pumps it to nearly 7,000 homes and businesses in Eldersburg and Sykesville. During prolonged dry spells, demand has strained the plant's capacity and forced the county to impose restrictions on water use.
The board of commissioners that started its term in December unanimously announced its intention to sign the agreement soon after taking office. At the same time, the board scrapped the Piney Run plant and announced its intention to pursue the wells and the improvements to the existing plant.