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Read this, even if you don't want to

April 09, 2006|By Bob Maginnis

If I told you this column was going to be about someone whose hobby was crocheting potholders out of poodle hair, you'd probably be a little bit disgusted, but I'd bet you would read on.

But if I told you instead that I was going to write about how limits on sewer service will change Washington County in the next 20 years, you might conclude that since nothing is going to happen right away, it isn't worth your time.

With all due respect, you would be wrong. If you own any property, including a home, work in the building trades or have a job a job in any field that depends on new business development, what will happen in the next few months will affect you a great deal.

Why? Because there is a limited amount of sewer capacity left in local plants, and when that's gone, there won't be any plant expansions allowed. What we've got now is what we'll have for a long time, at least until there's a technological breakthrough that will allow plants to remove more phosphorous and nitrogen from the water that they discharge into the streams and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.

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Those two chemicals are referred to as nutrients, because they're fed on by organisms that cloud water and deprive underwater plants of the light they need to grow. Such plants act as "nurseries" for fish and other aquatic life. Without it, they're easy targets for predators.

A limit on discharge could eventually stop development in the Urban Growth Area, that ring around Hagerstown where planners want to put it. Of more concern, according to Kristin Aleshire, is that there are many vacant structures in the city that are already hooked up to the sewer system. Trying to get people to redevelop them would be tough, he said, if there is no sewer capacity left.

Aleshire is a member of the Washington County Water and Sewer Infrastructure Committee, created in February 2004 by Washington County's General Assembly delegation to study a variety of issues related to sewer and growth.

After hearing Aleshire's dire predictions about what might happen, I spoke to Merle Elliott, who chairs the group.

"The sky is not falling," Elliott said, "but there is a finite limit on the nutrients we can remove."

Elliott said that those limits were agreed to a 2000 compact signed by the states in the bay's watershed.

"All of the states that contribute pollutants are parties to that compact, which has the force of federal law," he said.

After the limits that were set under that compact, Elliott said that Maryland in turn allotted capacity to various jurisdictions. The limits are absolute, Elliott said, but there are some things that can be done to make them less stringent.

Cooperation between the various treatment plants is one way, Elliott said. Eliminating inflow and infiltration - also known as "I-and-I" is another.

In older systems, groundwater leaks into sewer pipes, particularly in periods of heavy rain. Pipes can be repaired in the ground in a variety of ways, but the processes aren't cheap. The payoff is that instead of using plant capacity to treat groundwater, it can be reserved for treating actual waste.

Elliott said he did agree with Aleshire that capacity is not infinite and at the present rate of growth, it will run out sooner rather than later.

"If you have a finite resource, you need to make priority choices about how to use what you have," Elliott said.

That would be easier if all the county's treatment plants could be operated in a coordinated fashion, Elliott said, adding that there needs to be some "rigid planning" for the use of available capacity.

"That isn't saying we need to be anti-growth. It means being intelligent about using what we have," he said.

Asked for an example of what that might mean, Elliott said that maybe that means not offering a county site to a milk-processing plant, which would use up a lot of capacity.

It also means that "once you have established a plan, you make sure you follow that plan," he said.

Yes, it's going to be tough and the situation won't be one that can finessed through political connections. As Elliott said, "We have to deal with what is, not what somebody wishes it would be."

There is some hope. As I wrote in my July 2005 column, "The development of new technology accelerates when there's money to be made. And in this case, the inventor who finds a way to take more nutrients out of wastewater will reap a harvest of cash."

Another hopeful possibility: Urinals that work without water. The Comcast Center in Philadelphia is proposing to install them there and one of the manufacturers, Waterless Co., claims on its Web site that one unit can save 45,000 gallons of water per year.

When water was cheap, few would have seriously considered such a thing. Now as water becomes more scarce, there is a market for such devices. I hope, for the sake of Hagerstown's redevelopment effort, that there are some entrepreneurs trying to work the same technological magic on sewer systems.

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