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He talks; officials gulp

The Baltimore Sun

It has been a hot, dry month of Code Reds and cooling centers - just the weather that M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman loves.

The longtime Johns Hopkins University professor is not some sort of glutton for punishment. He just wants Marylanders to think about water - how much we have now and how much we will need later - and he knows the best time to ponder those questions is when the cornfields turn brown and the wells look as if they might run dry.

"I'm not in favor of creating a Dante's inferno. I'm not eager to have people suffer," said Wolman, who turned 83 last week. "On the other hand, the only time we seem willing to pay attention to a problem of this kind is when we have a crisis."

On the surface, it's hard to fathom Maryland running out of water. The Chesapeake Bay runs from near the Pennsylvania border to Virginia and the Atlantic Ocean. To the west is Deep Creek Lake; to the south, large tributaries such as the Choptank and Patuxent rivers and the Pocomoke and Tangier sounds. The Baltimore area has three reservoirs.

But much of the state gets its water from underground aquifers, and they're beginning to show strain. Over the past five years, a half-dozen communities in Central and Western Maryland have halted growth plans because of uncertainties about their water supply.

For several decades, Wolman has been a driving force behind efforts to protect Maryland's water. He has championed the cause of a clean Chesapeake Bay and, more recently, has become a leading advocate of water conservation.

He is relentless in his message to towns and counties: You've got to stop planning for growth without first figuring out where your water will come from.

The message is politically unpopular, but it is beginning to take hold. Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring local governments to file a water resources plan with the state as part of their land-use planning, legislation that Wolman sees as a small first step.

Wolman has had water on his mind since he learned to walk. His father, legendary sanitation engineer Abel Wolman, designed water and sewage systems for Baltimore and cities around the world. Abel Wolman's research helped lead to the chlorination of drinking water.

Water, the younger Wolman said, "was part of a continuous conversation with my father, from the time I was 3 years old, all the way until the day he died" in 1989, at the age of 96.

But Wolman, who grew up near Druid Hill Park and now lives in Mount Washington, never imagined that he would build his career at the same university - or even in the same city - where his father made his name.

"The notion that there would be any job in the Baltimore region for which I would be remotely qualified never occurred to me," Wolman said. "I never thought I would stay - didn't think I'd ever want to."

While a student at Hopkins in 1947, he and a friend decided to spend the summer touring Alaska. On the way, they stopped in Montana's Glacier National Park to camp for a couple of days. They befriended a clerk in one of the stores, who invited them to a popcorn-popping party. A few days later, they'd gotten summer jobs as cabin boys. They never made it to Alaska.

When Wolman wired his father to give him the news, Abel Wolman figured there must have been more to it. There was. In 1951, while Wolman was a graduate student at Harvard University, he married Elaine Mielke - the Minnesota college student who had been running the popcorn popper at that party 60 years ago.

The couple settled in Washington, where Wolman took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey. By that time, his career was headed in a different direction from his father's. He became interested in fluvial geomorphology - why rivers look the way they do, and how to forecast changes in their flow and shape.

Wolman figured he would soon head West again. But in 1958, Hopkins offered the 34-year-old the chairmanship of the geography department, where he would work alongside his father for nearly 30 years.

Gordon Wolman's 1964 book, Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology, became the go-to text on how rivers form. His work prompted the state to address how sediment from construction was choking rivers and streams.

After the 2002 drought, it became clear that the state needed help tackling its water woes, said Robert Summers, who headed the Maryland Department of the Environment's water management administration and is now the MDE's deputy secretary. The drought gave a taste of how bad the situation could get; Prettyboy Reservoir was down to 20 percent of its capacity, and Westminster was trucking in water from a local quarry.

"It was very clear that our water supplies were being very heavily taxed to support all the growth, and it was very clear that we had to get a better handle on the water supply," Summers said.

Summers knew his former Hopkins professor and longtime mentor would have the energy to lead the committee - even in his 80s, Wolman leads field trips each Friday, wading into small suburban streams to show his graduate students the effects of sedimentation and runoff.

The Wolman committee reports reflect their author's tone - candid but not alarmist, comprehensive but clear.

"As Maryland continues to grow, very difficult decisions will have to be made about when, where, and how to develop, and when not to develop, in order to protect this important natural resource," the committee's 2006 report said. "Clearly, the era when the availability of water could be taken for granted is over."

David Goshorn, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' representative to the committee, said Wolman's frankness has captured the attention of high-level staffers who are in a position to address the problem.

"He's made those comments before, that this is something we need to be very concerned about. That doesn't mean you want panic in the streets," Goshorn said.

Wolman's affability and his insistence that everyone call him "Reds" - a reference to his once carrot-colored hair that is now mostly gray - make it easy to forget that he is brilliant, says Charles O'Melia, a retired Hopkins professor who succeeded Wolman as department chairman. "He's just like anyone else, except he's more interesting and pleasant," O'Melia said.

Summers, who received his doctorate at Hopkins in 1981, remembers Wolman marching into a stream and the entire class following along, clinging to his words.

"His enthusiasm for the field and his ability to make it interesting and to explain it in a way that all his students could really grasp, and his encouragement, was just exemplary," Summers said.

Wolman says he has no plans to retire. He finds himself investigating flows even on vacation; on a recent visit to his son in Washington state, he and his wife were checking out the Klickitat River.

And, Wolman says, there is more work for his committee to do.

The relationship of planning to water resources, he says, remains "simply missing" - as evidenced by the state's 2004 order that Middletown, in Frederick County, halt all construction, because it had ignored repeated warnings that growth was using up the water supply.

That relationship will become even more important as Maryland's population grows. The Eastern Shore is expecting 160,000 more people over the next 20 years, while the Base Realignment and Closure process will bring thousands of new residents to the Baltimore-Washington area.

"We're not in the business of telling you that you can't move," he said. But he says people need to confront the fact that you can't serve new communities without water for them to drink.

"These are not easy decisions," he said, "but they're made more difficult, and less rational, by a lack of planning."


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