Time has come to address low water levels in tri-county area

Posted on August 14, 1999 at 22:13:03:

Remember the movie Chinatown? That's the classic in which a private investigator found himself in all kinds of trouble among a nefarious bunch of men who wanted to profit from ... water. Yes, water. It seems a serious drought made water a very precious commodity and when the investigator played by Jack Nicholson stumbles onto a plot involving people attempting to horde the stuff and sell it like it's oil or gold, he gets part of his nose chopped off.

That movie made us realize just how valuable water is when we can't get it. Now, as Maryland faces its worst drought since the Great Depression, we're starting to realize how important water is to us and how much we take it for advantage -- until we can't use it like we want.

People are growling that they can't water their lawns, wash their cars, have to pack their washing machines and dishwashers to full capacity and take shorter showers.

Pity the poor golfer who has to contend with brown fairways and wilted tees.

I also worry about those who work at the area's many car washes who may be out of a job indefinitely.

And once again, there's our beleaguered farmers. First, they've been told by the governor that unless they convert their profitable tobacco crops to something else, they'll receive no piece of the settlement against Big Tobacco. Now, after two below-par years because of low rainfall, the farmers have been hit by the worst drought of their lifetimes.

And what is Maryland doing about it? Offering low interest loans. So the farmer loses up to 90 percent of his crop and still has to pay for it -- albeit at a lesser cost than if he or she applied for a noral high-percentage rate loan at the bank.

What's even more ridiculous about this is reports that some businesses have found a way around the governor's mandate outlawing watering. Sprinklers are flowing at Camden Yards and PSINet Stadium (the Ravens' home field) despite the new regulations.
Something tells me that baseball and football fans won't hold it against the Orioles or Ravens if their fields are as brown as the fans' back yards.

So while the fat cat sports owners get to enjoy watching their high paid players playing on beautiful green grass, our farmers are fighting to get low interest loans. I'm pretty certain that I'm not the only one who sees this injustice.

Tthe farmers, car wash employees and lawn care enthusiasts aren't the only ones suffering from the drought. In fact, the drought has only put the spotlight on a growing problem in Southern Maryland -- depleted supply of water in the aquifers that provide Southern Maryland homes and businesses their water. Throughout the area, the aquifers that provide water to the area are alarmingly low on water. Those with shallow and small diameter wells can't reach the low water levels, some of which are 50 to 150 feet lower than their well can reach. So, they're stuck with the problem of building a new well or finding another costly alternative to getting water.

Consider the sobering facts. The major aquifer that provides water to Southern Maryland -- the Aquia -- which services 20,000-30,000 wells in Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties -- has suffered substantial loss in water level since 1982. That year, the water level in the Aquia in the center of Lexington Park was 60 feet below sea level. By 1994 (the latest numbers available), the water level dropped to 125 feet below sea level. That's a drop of five feet a year in Lexington Park. In 1982 in Leonardtown, water in the Aquia was 30 feet below sea level. Twelve years later, it dropped to 60 feet below sea level. And in the Charlotte Hall, Golden Beach area in 1982, the water level was 10 feet below sea level. By 1994, it was 40 feet below sea level. These drastic drops in water level are similar in Calvert and Charles counties.

Experts say the 1994 numbers are good compared to what they expect to find when they analyze the numbers over the last three years -- three of the driest summers we've had since the 1930s.

So, while the drought is causing some of the problem, it is not the main reason. Water levels have been falling considerably before the drought. The drought has only magnified the problem. Concerns about low water levels have been brewing in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's for years as the Southern Maryland region is the fastest growing area in the state. The statistics cited above show exactly that.

Concerned citizens are asking some pointed questions. Among them are: What is the condition of the aquifer(s) in this region?; How many wells are being drilled monthly and yearly in each county; How deep are the new wells?; Do current laws allow for management of the water supply; What is the current and projected growth rate for the tri-county area? Should new developments be required to install public water systems?; Does projected development in the area require the installation of a community-water system; How many new well permits are being issued in the tri-county area.

I plan to lead a public forum in the middle of August to address these concerns. I am sending invitations to members of the Department of the Environment, the county commissioners of all three Southern Maryland counties, geological experts, environmental experts, members of the Water Management Administration and officials at all Southern Maryland counties' boards of public works.

I encourage as many members of the community concerned about this issue to come out and express their views. The date and time of the meeting will be determined soon and when it is, I will let you know.

Return To Senator Dyson Newsletter