Watershed moment?

The Harford County public and municipal elected officials in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace need to pay particularly close attention three bills on water and sewer issues that are scheduled for hearings before the Harford County Council this Tuesday, March 13, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Though the bills to some degree reflect a move in the general direction of a unified water system for the county, the question whether the county needs such a system has yet to receive a full public airing.

It could be possible such an airing will never come. While providing safe, clean water is among many of the responsibilities of the county and its municipal governments, the function itself is actually rather mundane from the citizen's standpoint.

People often feel passionately about schools, public safety and, to some degree, development policy. But as long as drinkable water comes out when the faucet is turned, not much thought is given to how it got there. Similarly, the public water supply is vital for the public safety responsibility of putting out fires, but most people don't give much thought to this vital function unless they smell smoke in the kitchen or some other room.

Mundane or not, water and sewer policy is a matter of quintessential importance for all of us. If an area is served by public water and sewer lines, it is prime for development because it becomes possible to build on smaller lots and there's no worry that a particular lot will not percolate in such a way as to allow for the construction of a septic system.

Once more houses are built, there are more people living in the community, which means more traffic and a need for more classroom space in the schools. Concurrently, a sewer system that is substandard or operating beyond its capacity is, at best, a scourge on the environment and public waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and, at worst, a public health threat.

Given its pivotal role, water and sewer policy tends to set the tone for other public policy directions for local government.

It is important, therefore, that those making the policies have a good idea what their decisions will mean in the long run. Unfortunately, while there have been people in local government who understand the key role of water and sewer policy, there hasn't been much in the way of a countywide vision.

This has occurred in part because the city governments of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace have sought to retain control over their water and sewer operations, knowing that this ultimately means control over development. The results have been mixed. For decades Aberdeen pursued one water supply idea after another, but in recent years the city become increasingly dependent on the county's water supply system, especially as it concerns future growth, including growth related BRAC. The city's needs have grown, but its water supply hasn't.

Havre de Grace has plenty of water, but its sewage treatment capacity has been something of a limiting factor. Even so, the city has managed to retain a rather high degree of water and sewer autonomy, though that autonomy has come at a high price for the city's water and sewer service customers. Right now, water and sewer operations in Havre de Grace are in the red to the tune of some two million dollars and counting, prompting a temporary bailout in the form of a loan from the general fund and a call earlier this week for a minimum water and sewer rate increase of 5 percent. The slowdown in new connections because of the recession and the cost of an expensive upgrade to the sewage treatment plant mandated by the state and feds are blamed for the money shortfall.

Bel Air for decades has relied on the county for its sewage treatment. Its water supply is handled by the Maryland American plant on Winters Run, the investor owned water company has become increasingly dependent on the county for a backup water supply.

Some of the legislation before the county council deals with the rather complicated arrangements the county to provide water to Aberdeen and Maryland American. While there is nothing askew about the legislation as it is proposed, it amounts to another step in the direction of something approximating a countywide water and sewer system.

The merits of having a countywide system haven't been the subject of much in the way of public discussions, even as the county, Aberdeen and Bel Air have inched in this direction, and County Executive David Craig has made it clear he favors having such a system.

Possibly a single, unified county water and sewer system could be a good move. There is something of an economy of scale with water filtration and production on a large scale being cheaper than running a small plant. Then again, there is a lot of debt service to be paid on the existing patchwork of plants across the county and a countywide system is likely to end up absorbing that cost, which could negate any economy of scale savings that come from consolidation.

If good decisions are to be made with regard to the direction of Harford County's water and sewer policy, a lot more questions need posed and satisfactorily answered. Passage of the three bills before the county council shouldn't necessarily to be held up; however, if another dozen or so water and sewer bills are given the pass-through treatment, within a few years we very well could end up with a de facto countywide water and sewer system that grew out of bureaucratic machination, rather than from public discussion and consensus.

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