Growth's draining effect

The Baltimore Sun

When Las Vegas felt squeezed between its limited water supply and booming growth, it started paying residents $1 per square foot to replace their thirsty green lawns with drought-resistant gardens of cow's tongue cactus and Mexican feather grass.

Santa Barbara, Calif., spent millions building a desalination plant to purify water from the Pacific Ocean.

In Maryland, growth in Carroll and Frederick counties has also collided with water supplies. But the problem here isn't nearly as severe, and the solutions are likely to be less exotic.

The fix in Westminster, where the state has effectively imposed a building moratorium, is likely to include a seven-mile pipeline from a nearby reservoir, state and local officials say.

Despite their differences, in all of these cases the solution to the conflict between development and water supply is smart planning, according to water experts. Local governments need to make sure that the spread of cul-de-sacs doesn't outstrip the wells and pipes.

"Usually, these problems are the result of communities outgrowing their infrastructure," said John Boland, professor emeritus of environmental economics at the Johns Hopkins University. "They don't make the investments early enough to accommodate the growth that is actually occurring."

Maryland isn't running out of water like Nevada or Arizona, Boland said. But in the region west of Baltimore, the underground water is often spotty and scattered, and so trickier for a growing town to manage, he said.

In this region, Carroll and Frederick counties have had the worst troubles. The Maryland Department of the Environment has told Westminster to halt approval of building permits until the town improves a water supply that state officials say would be inadequate during a drought.

Middletown received a similar order in 2004. In Mount Airy, a voluntary growth moratorium was enacted for two years, starting in 2002. Also, Taneytown is studying growth carefully because it's nearing the water allocation limits set by the state.

"They have a finite amount of water," Robert Ballinger, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said of Westminster and its environs. "With all the new development, they need to take steps to make sure they don't have problems with drought situations in the future."

J. Alan Roberson, a water systems engineer who serves on a committee that advises Maryland on water issues, said California has tried to address a supply problem by putting the burden on developers. Builders must prove to local governments that they can provide enough water for their new homes for 20 years into the future before they can get building permits, he said.

"We've got to get good linkages between water planning and land-use planning," said Roberson, a director of the American Water Works Association, an organization of public works professionals. "Growing areas have to take a look 20, 30 years out and look at how they will get their water. ... In some cases, that's been a problem."

Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said his town's problems haven't come from a lack of planning. The town, which is the Carroll County seat, has a population of 18,000 and has grown by about a third over the past 15 years.

The community has been planning since 2002 to expand its water supply by about 500,000 gallons a day by spending about $5 million to build a pipeline from a water-filled quarry to the town, Ferguson said.

The town is also planning to purify polluted water from a well on the property of a closed creamery and to expand the municipal reservoir, he said.

Westminster officials say they believe that there is enough water for residents today, Ferguson said, and that these additional steps will take care of future needs.

Improving the water supply to allow development in an established town would be consistent with "smart growth" policies to discourage sprawl, he said.

"Nobody is going to wake up in the morning and turn on the shower and not get water," he said. "But now the MDE is saying we must test our capacity under the most severe stress test they can come up with, a hundred-year drought."

Ballinger, the MDE spokesman, said the agency halted new construction in Westminster as a precaution until state officials are convinced that the town's plans are adequate. "We are responsible for the quality of the water and the health of the individuals drinking the water," he said.

About 30 miles west in fast-growing Middletown, the state agency imposed a moratorium on new building permits in June 2004. Limits on growth are still in effect, but the town has been able to allow some growth by drilling four new wells, among other steps, said John Miller, the town's chief executive.

Las Vegas, one of the fastest-growing cities in America, faces far more severe water problems because of its desert climate. But instead of stopping development, it has taken a creative approach and pays residents to replace their green lawns, which drink excessive amounts of water, with cactus and Western grasses, said Jack W. Hoffbuhr, executive director of the American Water Works Association. "Vegas is buying sod back - I think that's very inventive," he said.

Denver and other cities save water that would be used to irrigate golf courses by spraying them with recycled wastewater from sewage plants, Hoffbuhr noted.

On the west coast, Santa Barbara imposed strict limits on building permits during the 1980s because of a lack of water and a desire by residents to control growth, said Steve Mack, the city's water resources manager. After a severe drought, the city built a pipeline from a lake and a desalination plant that cleans salt out of water drawn from the Pacific Ocean.

"Some people are alarmed by the rate of growth in their community, and they use a lack of water to try to stop it," Mack said. "In other areas, there are real concerns that growth is actually outpacing the supply of water."

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