Baltimore officials on Wednesday praised work underway that will dramatically alter the Druid Hill Park reservoir — a significant source of the city's drinking water.
The $140 million installation of two underground drinking water tanks, expected to be completed in March 2022, will temporarily disrupt recreation in a popular section of the city's largest park. But it ultimately will create 14 additional acres of land on the western end of the reservoir, where the water tanks are to be buried.
Officials said the new green space will include an amphitheater and wider, better-lit walkways. The area could also feature a restaurant. The remainder of the 146-year-old reservoir, known as Druid Lake, will be available for recreational activities such as fishing and kayaking.
Public Works Director Rudy Chow said the underground tanks "will preserve better water quality and lessen the required chemicals to keep the water fresh."
"All this is good for the health of our citizens here in Baltimore," he said.
The project is aimed at bringing the city into compliance with a 2006 Environmental Protection Agency rule that requires drinking water to be enclosed or treated with additional chemicals before it comes out of faucets. The tanks will hold a combined 54 million gallons of drinking water. New pipes will connect the tanks to the existing water distribution system.
Mayor Catherine Pugh joined Chow and Recreations and Parks Director Bill Vondrasek at the reservoir Wednesday morning. She said she frequently jogs alongside the lake.
"The lake will be a little bit smaller when the project is completed," she said, but it will be worth it.
"This is going to be a very, very beautiful sight," Pugh said.
Before then, recreation will be disrupted: For years, construction will obstruct a portion of the popular 1.5-mile running path that borders the reservoir. Park users have already been forced to change their routines; part of the path was blocked off a few weeks ago.
Jessica Brown frequently jogs and works out at the lake. The Reservoir Hill woman said she's had to alter her usual route since construction began.
"I'm gonna miss having this space, and I'm going to miss seeing my neighbors all working out together," Brown said. "I don't go near the construction site because I want fresh air, and it doesn't smell fresh over there."
Don Akchin, co-chair of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, acknowledged the construction is a "short-term inconvenience" for the neighborhood. He's concerned budget issues may prevent the city from following through on its plan to open the lake for recreation — but if they do, it will be an improvement.
"We're looking forward to the process being over," he said. "It hasn't even started yet and we're looking forward to it being over."
The Druid Lake project is one of several of its kind in the Baltimore area, Chow said. Reservoirs in Montebello, Towson, and Pikesville are complete. Projects in Guilford and Lake Ashburton are still underway.
Tom Orth, a member of the board for the Friends of Druid Hill Park, said the lake project is the result of talks between the organization, community and city government. Initially, the city proposed burying water storage tanks under existing parkland. Park advocates said that plan would have disrupted Druid Hill's historic landscape.
He called the project now underway "a good compromise between everyone involved in this process," and pledged to stay involved going forward.
"We're hoping to work with the Department of Recreation and Parks over the next five years to make sure the community is very involved in what recreation looks like, and what the city does as part of that development of the lake," Orth said.
Vondrasek said the city has tried to minimize the impact on existing recreation. Officials have identified a new 1.5-mile loop just north of Druid Lake, a comparable alternative for those looking for a new place to exercise, he said.
"We're gonna have [the new path] properly signed to show folks where to go, and it's gonna take people into parts of the park they probably haven't been to before," he said.
Once the lake is open for public use, he said, the city will offer access to kayaks and canoes — and instruction for those who don't know how to use them.
Chow said the city is also trying to improve the lake as a wildlife habitat. He said the finished lake will feature an aeration system to enhance water quality. He expects local wildlife to move to another area of the park while construction takes place.
"Hopefully [the animals] will find a way to migrate over, and then, when everything is said and done, they will migrate back," Chow said.
Carl Simon is interim director of Blue Water Baltimore, whose mission is restore the quality of Baltimore's rivers, streams and harbor. He welcomed the changes at Druid Lake.
"Given that our watersheds are polluted and the Inner Harbor is polluted, we have limited recreational opportunities on the water in our area," Simon said. "Having this new space to get out kayaking, canoeing and enjoy that time with your family is an excellent, excellent thing to happen out here in the city."
Abby Rammelkamp walks near the lake daily. The Wyman Park woman said she's in favor of the lake's new amenities, especially if they'll bring new people to the park.
"I enjoyed walking the perimeter of the reservoir and enjoyed watching the water fowl that came here, and I guess that's going to be disrupted," Rammelkamp said. "But I'm willing to not be annoyed with it if it's going to be for a purpose that's good for the environment and good for the people."
Wendy Wolock, who lives in Baltimore County, said she visits Druid Lake once a week. She said years of construction will be "hard on the residents here," but is happy to see the city working on improvements.
"I'm glad they're putting money into this amazing park here in the city," she said. "I think it's one of our treasures in Baltimore."