Drought provides wake-up call in Pa.

November 18, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

CHAMBERSBURG - The drought that withered Pennsylvania this year has turned into a wake-up call.

A lack of water is prompting Franklin County officials to take a hard look 20 years down the road to see if there will be enough to handle the growth that is projected to raise the county's population to 160,000 residents by 2020.

The population now is about 129,000, according to the 2000 census.

"The recent drought has brought into focus that the county's growth and development is dependent on water," L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Economic Development Corp., said.

Ross said there is a disparity between the water utilities that serve county residents.

"Some have had ample water supplies in the drought and others have seen their supplies depleted," he said. "We need to look at the possibility of interconnecting the systems countywide to guarantee a water supply for the future. That's critical for maximizing our resources because water affects all of us."


Ross said there is a growing consensus among members of the county's drought task force that the future of the water supply should become a key topic for the county's newly organized council of governments.

"The first step is to get people to recognize the need," he said. "Planning often starts around a crisis, and the drought was the crisis."

He cited nearby Frederick, Md., which ran out of water this summer.

"They had accelerated growth without developing the resources to support it," Ross said. "Frederick is close enough to home to learn a lesson."

Phil Tarquino, director of planning for Franklin County, heads the drought task force appointed last summer. The task force believes it's time to begin a comprehensive look at future water resources in light of projected growth.

The task force is temporary, but Tarquino thinks it can be the vehicle to begin a dialogue on the subject of consolidation.

Several southern Franklin County communities - Waynesboro and Greencastle, in particular - were hard hit by the drought.

Both saw their dams and reservoirs drop to dangerously low levels.

Waynesboro's water supply, fed by streams that make up the headwaters of the Antietam Creek on South Mountain, dropped so low last spring borough officials voted on an emergency water rationing plan they could implement on a moment's notice if necessary. The plan was not implemented, but residents were asked to cut water use by 15 percent all summer.

At one point during the summer the water level at the dam holding back the borough's reservoir dropped 15 feet below the spillway, a record.

Greencastle didn't fare much better. The system there is fed by springs and wells that dropped way below normal levels.

Antrim Township, which gets some of its water from the borough's water system, grew by 24 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the census.

Greencastle borough officials are spending $28,000 on a consultant to study the community's future water needs, said Borough Manager Ken Myers.

Steady rains in October raised the water levels to the point where Gov. Mark Schweiker lifted the drought emergency status in 16 Pennsylvania counties, including Franklin, earlier this month.

Myers said Greencastle's water supplies "are looking pretty good," following the rains, but there is still concern for ground water levels. The rain filled streams and reservoirs but has had little effect on ground water, he said.

Myers said he likes the idea of a countywide water authority.

Bruce McNew, assistant water/sewer superintendent for the Borough of Chambersburg, said water supplies there are still down for the year in spite of the October rains. The spillway at the Birch Run Dam, the biggest of the two in the borough's water system, was down by more than 13 feet Nov. 4. The Conococheague Creek feeds the reservoirs.

"We've got to start somewhere on overall planning, but it's going to take a lot of cooperation between the communities," McNew said of the idea of consolidating the county's water systems.

Many local companies will try to protect their turf, he said.

He said the idea of consolidating the county's public water systems was "kicked around in the 1960s, but nothing ever came of it. There's not much growth now, but who's to say that a big company could come in tomorrow and say we need 2 million gallons a day."

Chambersburg uses 4 million gallons a day from a treatment plant that can handle up to 6 million gallons, McNew said.

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