North East study­ing ways to in­crease wa­ter us­age

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By JES­SICA IAN­NETTA

jian­netta@ ce­cil­whig. com

— Ev­ery day, North East gen­er­ates a mil­lion more gal­lons of wa­ter than the town can use.

The town has so much ex­cess wa­ter that wa­ter de­part­ment em­ploy­ees fre­quently run the treat­ment plant at half speed. When even that can’t slow down the buildup, they flush a few fire hy­drants to sim­u­late us­age and just let the wa­ter flow out onto the ground.

As waste­ful as that may sound, wa­ter de­part­ment em­ploy­ees have lit­tle choice – they’re re­quired to keep the wa­ter cir­cu­lat­ing through the sys­tem even if no one is us­ing it.

When the wa­ter just sits in one place, it can lead to a buildup of con­tam­i­nants. That’s what hap­pened this spring when the Maryland De­part­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment no­ti­fied the town it had ex­ceeded the max­i­mum con­tam­i­nant level for haloacetic acids, chem­i­cal com­pounds that con­tain chlo­rine and bromine, by 0.6 parts per bil­lion. Ear­lier this month, town of­fi­cials met with MDE to dis­cuss the prob­lem.

But the town’s strug­gles with its too- large wa­ter sys­tem are noth­ing new. MDE has flagged North East for wa­ter qual­ity problems go­ing back to 2010 and the town’s wa­ter de­part­ment has tried sev­eral dif­fer­ent meth­ods to fix the is­sues with vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess.

What’s now clear to many town of­fi­cials is that solv­ing this com­plex prob­lem will re­quire ac­tion on a much larger scale than the wa­ter de­part­ment can achieve on its own: North East sim­ply has too much wa­ter and no one to use it.

“We have ex­cess wa­ter and we’re will­ing to move it where it needs to go to be pro­duc­tive,” Mayor Robert McKnight said dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s town meet­ing. “It may take some very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions here that will be costly to us, but un­for­tu­nately, in or­der to meet the re­quire­ments, we may have to do things that are costly. We haven’t got a lot of choices.”

‘ The rules changed’

In many ways, North East’s cur­rent wa­ter problems are the re­sult of de­ci­sions made in the 1980s when the town board was wor­ried about fire pro­tec­tion and boom­ing de­vel­op­ment – not environmental reg­u­la­tions.

Town Ad­min­is­tra­tor Melissa Cook- MacKen­zie has re­searched town records from this time pe­riod and noted that North East nearly lost Main Street to a fire in the 1970s. That near- dis­as­ter was a ma­jor fac­tor the town board con­sid­ered in the 1980s when de­cid­ing how big of a tank to in­stall at Ir­ish­town Road. The board even­tu­ally de­cided to go with a 500,000 gal­lon tank in­stead of a 250,000 gal­lon tank, both for greater fire pro­tec­tion and in an­tic­i­pa­tion of fu­ture de­vel­op­ment.

But much of that de­vel­op­ment never ma­te­ri­al­ized and, while the town has great fire pro­tec­tion, town of­fi­cials from 30 years ago could never have an­tic­i­pated the host of wa­ter reg­u­la­tions North East must com­ply with to­day, CookMacKen­zie said.

“The rules changed,” she noted.

But the town has had dif­fi­culty ad­just­ing its wa­ter sys­tem to these new rules.

North East draws its wa-

NORTH EAST

have have ter from Lit­tle North East Creek and North East Creek, but gen­er­at­ing less wa­ter isn’t as sim­ple as just pump­ing less wa­ter into the treat­ment plant, said Ron Carter, the town’s wa­ter de­part­ment su­per­in­ten­dent.

Ide­ally, the treat­ment plant should be op­er­at­ing at 1,400 gal­lons per minute. Em­ploy­ees of­ten run it at 700 gal­lons a minute for a few hours a day to de­crease pro­duc­tion. Even that of­ten doesn’t slow down the wa­ter gen­er­a­tion enough and the plant can’t re­ally be run at less than 700 gal­lons, Carter said.

The town is also re­quired to keep a certain amount of wa­ter in its tow­ers for fire pro­tec­tion, he added.

But of­ten, the town runs into problems with keep­ing too much wa­ter in its tow­ers for too long. The Ir­ish­town Tower, for ex­am­ple, has a ca­pac­ity of 500,000 gal­lons but the town only keeps about 250,000 gal­lons there be­cause of low us­age.

Even still, only about 25,000 gal­lons is used ev­ery­day, mean­ing wa­ter can sit in the tower for as long as 10 days. The op­ti­mal time­line for the wa­ter to be used, though, is closer to three days, Carter said.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion is that many of the dis­tri­bu­tion lines have high us­age at the be­gin­ning and end but lit­tle us­age in the mid­dle. That means wa­ter can some­times sit stag­nant in the mid­dle, cre­at­ing what Carter refers to as “static sludge.”

What all this low ca­pac­ity us­age in a high ca­pac­ity sys­tem oc­ca­sion­ally trans­lates to is wa­ter qual­ity problems.

North East’s most re­cent wa­ter qual­ity is­sue ac­tu­ally oc­curred last fall but nei­ther MDE or the town was aware of the is­sue until April be­cause the town ini­tially re­ported an in­cor­rect num­ber by ac­ci­dent. The town hasn’t had any is­sues with wa­ter qual­ity since then but is con­tin­u­ing to meet with MDE to dis­cuss more long- term fixes to its wa­ter woes.

Chief among those so­lu­tions is work­ing with an en­gi­neer­ing firm to cre­ate a hy­draulic model of the wa­ter sys­tem. This will help the town pin­point where the problems in the sys­tem are and iden­tify po­ten­tial so­lu­tions, Carter said. Such a model would likely take four to six months to com­plete, he said.

MDE has also en­cour­aged the town to ex­plore an­other op­tion for the In­ter­state 95 wa­ter tower. Though the town uses the tower, the state owns it and MDE has sug­gested it would be bet­ter for North East to have a wa­ter tower it con­trols. Town of­fi­cials have con­sid­ered build­ing a new wa­ter tower in the Ra­zor Strap Road area, but Carter noted the hy­draulic model will help iden­tify the best lo­ca­tion.

‘The de­vel­op­ment just stopped’

Hy­draulic mod­els and new tow­ers aside, the best and most sim­ple so­lu­tion to North East’s wa­ter woes may also be the most dif­fi­cult: the town needs more peo­ple to use more wa­ter.

“That’s the key: if we can get the wa­ter mov­ing, sell some wa­ter, get the wa­ter go­ing that would help tremen­dously,” Carter said.

But it’s un­clear ex­actly how – or to whom – the town could sell its ex­cess wa­ter. In 2008, the town gen­er­ated nearly $ 1.4 mil­lion in wa­ter hook- up fees, but dur­ing the upcoming fis­cal year ex­pects only two sin­gle fam­ily dwellings to con­nect, Ken Natale, the town’s di­rec­tor of fi­nance and ad­min­is­tra­tion, told the town board at a bud­get hear­ing last month.

And town of­fi­cials said they’re not sure where more de­vel­op­ment might come from.

McKnight noted that the I- 95 sec­tion of the wa­ter sys­tem was cre­ated with the un­der­stand­ing that Prin­ci­pio Park would gen­er­ate more wa­ter us­age than it has. Cook- MacKen­zie agreed and noted that North East doesn’t have too many areas left to be de­vel­oped and those that could be haven’t even reached the step of sub­mit­ting site plans yet.

“The fact that the de­vel­op­ment just stopped changed the game for us,” McKnight said. “We were in a place to do a lot of good things, and then the de­vel­op­ment just stopped.”

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