WASHINGTON – Business has been booming for the Calvert Well Drilling Co. over the past decade, a trend that owner Sharon Morris attributes to all the people who have been flocking from the city to the suburbs.
But the same population explosion that has boosted Morris’ business — and given Southern Maryland the state’s fastest growth rate — has also stressed the region’s water supply, which the U.S. Geological Survey says is being pumped at a much faster rate than it can be replenished.
One hydrologist said it could take the aquifers, which are as far as 2,500 feet underground, 100 years or more to replenish all the water lost since 1960. That could be critical in a region where the lack of surface freshwater forces a reliance on wells for drinking water.
“Given the way things are now, it’s very possible that 20 years from now aquifers here will be reaching levels of concern,” said Jason Groth, a public planner for Charles County. “We have to look into the future, see our population growth . . . and what’s going to happen.”
Morris said that of the more than 500 wells a year her company installs, most are for new home owners and public and industrial sites. Only about 150 are replacements for old wells, she said.
“Everybody wants to move into the suburbs,” said Groth. “You can slow growth but it’s almost impossible to stop growth.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t try.
Calvert County, which has the highest growth rate in the state, toughened its zoning regulations last year to cap the number of homes at 100,000 — not far from the roughly 84,000 homes there now, said Dan Williams, the county chief of utilities.
Williams said he does not believe that the water supply will run out anytime soon, but the county is playing it safe with the zoning restrictions and other regulations, like requiring all new homes to have water-limiting faucets.
“We’re still good through the year 2025,” Williams said. “But it’s hard to predict out much farther than that.”
Just last month, Calvert County got a new monitoring well with which the geological survey will take daily measurements of the Aquia aquifer, which in some spots has fallen more than 120 feet in the last 50 years.
It is not the first Southern Maryland aquifer to run in to trouble. Charles County had to scramble in the mid-1980s, when it discovered that its sole water source, the Magothy aquifer, was almost 80 percent depleted. The aquifer would have been shut down by the Maryland Department of the Environment had it reached that 80 percent level.
Charles officials eventually decided to extend the county’s public wells to tap the deeper Patapsco aquifer, which is also used by neighboring counties. The county has since been getting about 60 percent of its water from the Patapsco aquifer and about 40 percent from the Magothy, a break that let the Magothy begin to replenish itself — though it has still not reached its natural levels.
Since then, however, the state and USGS recently voiced concerns that the Patapsco, which has fallen 40 feet in 40 years, and other Southern Maryland aquifers are declining. That has Charles County again looking for ways to prevent another crisis situation.
Groth said the county’s water woes should be helped by growth restrictions — such as a limit on the number of new homes that can be built in each school zone — that are not directly related to aquifer depletion.
Charles County officials have also been studying ways to maximize water use while minimizing aquifer depletion. One solution has been to store 500 million gallons in two water towers that the county can tap during the summer and on days when monitoring wells show that aquifers are going through a dry spell, Groth said.
More drastic rules, like population caps and other growth limits, are harder to pass because aquifer depletion is such an obscure problem, Groth said: You cannot see them draining. While aquifer depletion is a serious concern, no immediate changes will be taking place in Charles — except more studies.
“The concern is long term. It isn’t this year or next year,” said Emery Cleaves of the Maryland Geological Survey, noting that the lack of immediacy might be the reason why not many changes have taken place yet.
Groth agreed, noting that the Magothy crisis in Charles County showed that people shy away from drastic change unless they are at the end of their ropes.
“When it gets serious, that’s when you’ll really see a lot of action,” Groth said. “People don’t start putting their fires out unless there’s a problem.”
-30- CNS 04-29-04