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Maryland American reservoir is in operation for Bel Air customers; water bills to rise

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Much of the facility was covered with fresh snow this week, and most of the water’s surface was frozen, but Maryland American Water’s $15.4 million, 90-million gallon water storage impoundment is in operation. It will provide a backup water supply for the company’s 5,000 customers in and around the Town of Bel Air.

“Seeing it all come together . . . and adding value to our customers, it’s something that will be here forever,” Operations Manager Richard Corbi said Monday in the midst of a heavy snowfall.

To pay for the reservoir, customers of Maryland American — a private water provider — who live in Bel Air and the surrounding areas will see an increase in their water rates.

Maryland American, the Maryland Public Service Commission and the state’s Office of People’s Counsel agreed in a settlement that the company could increase its rates overall by 31.27 percent. It can raise $1.45 million more in annual revenues, according to the settlement, which took effect Feb. 5.

The increase varies depending on water usage. That means residential customers could see increases ranging from 18.71 percent to 33.57 percent and 18.71 to 36.71 percent for commercial customers, according to the settlement.

Water bills that went out to customers Monday will be the first bills showing the increase, according to Maryland American spokesperson Alison Bibb-Carson.

The company initially sought an increase of more than 39 percent, allowing it to raise more than $1.8 million in annual revenue, according to the settlement, which is posted on the Public Service Commission’s website.

“In terms of the resulting rates, the proposed rate increase, due to the Impoundment Project, is no doubt substantial,” Jennifer J. Grace, a public utility law judge for the PSC, wrote in the settlement. “However, [PSC] Staff and OPC [Office of People’s Counsel] investigated the necessity for the Impoundment Project, and agree that its construction was necessary and proper.”

Average residential customers who use 3,700 gallons per month should see bills of $53.75. That is an increase of $12.08 per month, or 40 cents a day, according to a Maryland American news release.

“We’re really happy with the outcome, and we’re happy that we were able to hear from the public and work with the Maryland PSC to get this new rate approved,” Bibb-Carson said.

Twenty-six people, who spoke during a PSC public hearing last October in the Harford County Council chambers in Bel Air, decried Maryland American’s requested rate increase. They expressed concerns about the impact on senior citizens living on fixed incomes, as well as local businesses, schools and residents overall.

Grace, who presided over the public hearing, took those concerns into account. She ultimately determined the rates agreed to in the settlement are “reasonable” in light of the need for the impoundment, which is meant to serve as a backup water supply in case of emergencies such as drought.

“I find that, in light of the necessity of providing its customers with a safe and adequate water supply, that the building of the Bel Air Impoundment was necessary and proper, that the overall impact on average customers is reasonable, and I do not believe that the increase will create an undue burden on a particular class compared to another class,” Grace wrote.

Customers who need assistance with their water bills can call the Dollar Energy Fund at 1-888-282-6816 to determine if they qualify. Visit www.marylandamwater.com or call the customer service line, 1-866-641-2131, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, for more information about water rates.

The impoundment

The teardrop-shaped impoundment — Corbi, the operations manager, also compared it to a baseball diamond — is surrounded by an earthen dam and has a capacity of 90 million gallons. It held about 74 million gallons as of Monday, with a water level just above 250 feet; the maximum water level is 256 feet.

The interior is covered by a “bituminous liner.” Corbi gave a walking tour around the facility on a snow-covered asphalt road along the top of the dam.

It is not open for public recreation, and it is secured by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Security cameras will be installed, too, according to Corbi.

The Winters Run stream is the primary source of drinking water for Bel Air. Maryland American’s water treatment plant is downhill from the impoundment, on the opposite side of the stream.

Corbi said there are four pumps at the treatment plant, two to draw water from the stream for drinking water and two more to draw water for the impoundment.

One pump for each function was running Monday, and the other two serve as backups, according to Corbi.

The water that goes into the impoundment is untreated, but it can be transferred, via gravity lines, to the treatment plant for conversion into drinking water.

Corbi said it has been used twice since going into operation in January, once when Winters Run was filled with sediment after a heavy rain and again when the stream was filled with ice during a cold snap.

“We did it for water supply, but we get operational benefits, too,” he said.

Construction started with a ground-breaking ceremony in the summer of 2017. The facility, which went into operation in early January, has been built on 68 acres on the historic Mt. Soma farm off of Route 1, south of Bel Air.

The impoundment itself occupies 12.5 acres, and workers are grading and preparing land outside the fenced-in reservoir. Any acreage not used will go back to Harford County, according to Corbi.

Maryland American purchase the property from the county in 2015; the county had acquired the land in 1996 from the Amoss family, descendants of William Amoss who established the original 1,200 acre Mt. Soma farm in the early 1700s.

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