North East studying ways to increase water usage
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-
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.”