Forget the old way of doing business

July 09, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

There are a lot of ways to build a house. In the 1880s, pioneers on America's Great Plains region built them of sod. The University of Cambridge's Department of Engineering has developed a method for making bricks out of newspaper and rice water. Even corrugated cardboard is getting a look.

But no matter how you build a house, or any structure for that matter, you must have two things for those who live or work inside - a source of potable water and a way to dispose of human waste.

Out in the country, we have wells and septic systems. In the urban areas of Washington County, we have large sewage-treatment plants and water is piped from a Hagerstown plant that draws from the Potomac River.

Because that's where the facilities are, Washington County has tried to promote growth on land around Hagerstown and its suburbs. For many years, everyone assumed that when there was too much sewage for the existing plant - and not enough water for a growing population - we could just expand the sewer plant and draw more water from the river.


Well, we can't.

Who says so? The federal government, which is enforcing an effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by limiting the amount of "nutrients" that go into it from sewer plants and runoff.

The chemistry involved is probably more than you want to know about. What it means in practical terms that, barring a great leap in technology that would allow the sewer plants to cheaply turn their outflow into very clean water, we're stuck with what we've got.

Plants that exist now won't be allowed to expand. And forget about building any new ones. No one is certain about the water yet, but approval to draw out more will probably be more tough to get than it was years ago.

What all of this means is that we have a limited amount of a valuable resource and how it's used could have a great effect on the local economy.

Suppose, for example, we - and I'm using "we" because we're all in this together - use all of our capacity on houses and then have to tell that biotech manufacturer with the big-paying jobs that we can't meet their needs.

To their credit, the members of Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly saw this coming two years ago.

They mandated creation of a local group - the Washington County Water and Sewer Infrastructure Commission - to look at the future of water and sewer service here.

Now the commission's work is done and its members, under the leadership of long-time civic activist Merle Elliott, are beginning to publicize their findings.

On Thursday, I sat down with Elliott and Greg Murray, Washington County's Director of Water Quality, to find out what the future holds.

Elliott said that because he and other members knew "practically nothing about the technical process," they would need to first look at what now exists - in facilities and in regulation.

They found that the Chesapeake Bay agreement binds sewer plants to hit a target of three milligrams per liter by 2010, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could step in.

With no changes in technology, Elliott said the commission estimates that there will be adequate water until 2026 and sewer capacity to last until 2020.

"If you have a limited supply of something, you have to plan ahead," Elliott said.

"We have to do a coordinated job of planning," he said.

What this means is that the city and county governments, which have battled over sewer issues for at least 30 years, will have to work together, because, according to Murray, capacity can't be increased, but the state might allow it to be moved from one location to another.

That move could be physical, with pipes moving waste from one area to another. Murray said, capacity might be traded from one plant to another. The net effect would be that no more waste would go into the bay, but a plant with a need for capacity might be able to get it from one with capacity to spare.

To make this work, Elliott said that water and sewer will have to be figured into the land-use planning process in a different way. An area that is hard to serve with sewer because it's in a valley might have to be a lower priority for service than one on high ground that use a gravity-flow system.

Another part of the solution, Elliott said, will have to be cultural change. At some point in the future, water use might be restricted so that when you reach your maximum allocation for the month, the tap shuts off.

Composting toilets that keep waste out of sewer systems and groundwater might also be encouraged, Elliott said.

If this sounds like a wacky environmentalist talking, it's not. Elliott has been involved in industrial development here for decades. What he and the commission are saying, in effect, is that if we ever want to open another one, we've got to make wise use of the resources that remain.

But, as Elliott said, elected officials could reject all of this and move ahead as the area always has, allowing the future to take care of itself. There will be political pressure from developers and landowners to keep doing things in the old way, just as there was years ago to defeat ideas such as impact fees.

The feds have said "no dice" to that and those who care about the county must to try to make sure the county doesn't become a bedroom community with no ability to bring in new jobs for the people who live in it.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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