ANNAPOLIS – Linda Hagan’s well has dried up twice since a development sprouted next to the small farm in Carroll County where she grows Christmas trees and antique roses. The development features homes worth more than $1 million that have three to four showers and large storage tanks for water pumped from the ground below, according to Hagan.
“I have to watch water, I don’t take it for granted because we aren’t going to get anymore,” said Hagan. “I don’t see the builders building smaller homes because in this country conservation is a dirty word.”
Now, legislation pending before the Maryland General Assembly has given Hagan and her fellow farmers even more reason for concern.
The bill would, in essence, allow developers to draw more water out of the ground to supply the new homes and offices. The bill’s impact would be particularly felt in fast-growing counties facing development pressure from the expanding suburbs of Baltimore and Washington – Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties, to the west, as well as Harford and Cecil counties to the east.
The measure would allow towns to draw groundwater away from parks and farms for new development. Heated debate has erupted between environmentalists on the one hand and town governments and developers on the other.
The environmentalists, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 1,000 Friends of Maryland, contend that the measure would endanger animal habitats, hurt farmers and eventually deplete water resources. The bill’s supporters say that development is at a standstill in certain parts of the state and they need access to more water.
In calculating each development’s water allocation, the state considers the amount of land it occupies, how much water is in the underlying shallow aquifer and how much open space is in the development. The new bill would allow developments to include nearby park and farm land as part of the development, thereby increasing the amount of water they are allowed to draw from their wells.
According to John Grace, Division Chief in the Water Supply Program for the Maryland Department of the Environment, the current permits make sure that wells do not draw too much water and cause nearby streams to run dry.
“Wells that draw a lot of water attract even more water from the nearby aquifer. Water does not say ‘oops, it’s a property line; I will stop’,” said Grace.
Towns and developers say they do not understand why environmentalists are against them, because in order to implement Smart Growth programs – dense concentrated development – they need to be allowed more water per acre.
“The end result of this is big houses on big lots out in the countryside,” said Candace Donoho of the Maryland Municipal League at a Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs hearing on Tuesday.
The city of Taneytown in Carroll County only has enough water permits left for 10 houses or “a new 7-Eleven and an addition to a store,” said City Manager James Schumacher at the same hearing.
Tom Ballentine, policy director for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, says that current policy encourages growth on the outskirts of towns where there is more space and therefore more water rights. He says water in farms and parks is “underestimated.”
“The regulations now ignore land that is clearly recharging water,” said Ballentine.
But environmentalists say the answer is not to draw more water and deplete resources. They agree with Hagan, that the answer is in water conservation.
Betsy Johnson of the Sierra Club said that she is appalled by the average current water usage for homes in Maryland.
“I am horrified to hear that a household uses 250 gallons of water per day, I use 40 gallons of water per day,” said Johnson. “There should be laws and regulations on conservation technology.”
Jen Aiosa, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she does not agree with the notion that water for wetlands and habitats – not for human consumption – are somehow not being used for benefit. “This is neither smart nor sustainable growth,” said Aiosa.