- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

Home construction in the city of Frederick, Md., has literally dried up.

A moratorium on residential construction was imposed there last year to address a water-supply crisis, and building projects have been put on hold indefinitely.

Sewer lines and streets already have been installed for some of these developments, but building is at a standstill.

Local planners and construction industry observers are watching. They worry that other areas in the region could experience similar emergencies, where growth is outstripping water resources and pushing suburban development farther and farther into the hinterlands.

Potential home buyers and the community at large should be watching, too, because the problem and government response to it could spawn further restrictions on building, higher home prices and longer commutes. Problems like those in Frederick, where builders are laying off workers or pushing projects farther west, could strike other jurisdictions, observers say.

The Frederick moratorium, enacted in February 2002, halted 22 projects in the city, according to Steve Oder, past president of the Frederick County Builders Association. Drought conditions of the past year, officials say, served only to exacerbate a persistent lack of adequate water resources needed for residential growth.

The same holds true in Frederick County, Md., where well failure halted two projects.

According to Mike Marschner, Frederick County director of Utilities and Solid Waste, "There is not enough water to support the needs of the existing community. These problems would have occurred even if the drought had not." The two subdivisions, Windsor Knolls and Point of Rocks, which total 329 dwellings, experienced "severe well failures" in 1999, and the drought aggravated the situation.

About 20 jurisdictions supplying community water within the Washington Regional Council of Governments were under a drought watch through last summer. Eight more including Frederick City and Frederick County as well as Purcellville in Loudoun County, Va. were under more severe drought warnings. Between Sept. 1, 2001, and Aug. 28, 2002, the region was 10.98 inches 27 percent below normal rainfall as measured at Washington Dulles International Airport. Normal annual precipitation there is 40.50 inches.

The region is only now beginning to catch up to its rainfall deficit. John Newkirk, program manager with the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington forecast office, says rain and snow late in 2002 broke the drought.

"During the early winter, we got a lot of rain, and that made up for it," Mr. Newkirk says. As far as the National Weather Service is concerned, Mr. Newkirk says, the 15 inches of precipitation that fell on the region between October and December 5.04 inches in October alone more than made up for the rain deficit. Yet, "different [jurisdictions] have different policies, and Maryland is still carrying a drought in certain areas," Mr. Newkirk says.

Officials with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) remain concerned about demands on the river and its tributaries upstream of Washington. The commission, responsible for coordinating water releases from reservoirs to maintain the Potomac's water supply during drought conditions, completed two studies in 2000 that focused on the water demand and resources for the area.

"Consumptive use is a problem in the Potomac River basin," says Joseph Hoffman, executive director of the group. "There are several tributary streams that experienced or are approaching record lows and may not be able to meet the demand."

While commission representatives are confident that existing water resources can meet existing demand, the bigger picture is troubling. They do not have a way to measure groundwater supply.

"The best planning would take both groundwater and surface water into account," Mr. Hoffman says. "We are trying to get an awareness of this. Will we deplete it? How many people are relying on groundwater?" These questions must still be answered, he says.

The Frederick water emergency dogged Mr. Oder throughout his term as president of the builders group. He says it has made Frederick "not a reasonable place to live," forcing builders to scramble for work and to seek out projects in neighboring counties.

"When everything shuts down, it's hard on all of us," Mr. Oder says. "People are moving out to West Virginia and other areas because there is nothing left [to develop in Frederick]."

Marvin Ausherman is taking his business elsewhere. The president of Ausherman Homes says his production is off by 40 percent because of the moratorium. "This tears me apart," says Mr. Ausherman, who has been a Frederick builder for 51 years. He says the water situation is "the worst" he has ever seen.

"They talk about creating jobs and housing affordability, and then the government takes an issue and does nothing about it," Mr. Ausherman says.

Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty says the city wants to promote orderly growth, but the water supply must be able to support development. "We can't find water where there isn't any," Ms.Dougherty says.

The Monocacy River supplies most of the water for Frederick's 52,000 residents. Although the city has been growing during the past decade, it has not added any water storage since the 1960s. The 2001-02 drought made a bad situation worse.

Curtis Dalpra, the ICPRB's communications director, says growth in other areas impacts the water supply downstream, which points to the need for cooperative solutions. Frederick is a prime example.

The Monocacy River is supplied by two streams that flow through Gettysburg, Pa., a location also straining with development, where officials have come to realize they need their own water-supply plan, Mr. Dalpra says.

"In the East, we consider ourselves as being water-rich," Mr. Dalpra says. "Water was a commodity we thought we'd never run out of, but with water not being where it needs to be, we need to determine how we can best meet the needs of the future."

"We can't manufacture water, we have to find it and treat it," Ms. Dougherty says. "It's very troubling that the previous administration didn't address this."

Frederick is awaiting approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment for new wells to provide temporary relief.

In addition, in September, the city established a water allocation panel to review every proposed development to see if the city can provide the necessary water. The allocation ordinance will be enforced until completion of a pipeline from the Potomac River, a project that is in the planning stages.

Until then, "the moratorium is a necessary evil," the mayor says.

It is an evil other jurisdictions easily could face, officials say. Frederick is only one example where growth placed a finite water supply under stress.

Just east of Frederick, Maryland's Carroll County also has taken extreme measures to conserve diminishing water resources. The director of Carroll County's Department of Planning and Public Works, Thomas Beyard, says the county struggled with drought conditions in 2001. In 2002, in the face of ongoing problems, stringent restrictions were enforced, and all new residential construction in the county was put on hold.

Mr. Beyard says the county had to "put up a lot more hurdles to give us protection of water."

In Virginia, Loudoun County has experienced phenomenal growth in the past few years, and county officials say they have to keep an eye on their water sources and develop solutions to manage skyrocketing water use.

"It is a big, ongoing concern of ours," says Kathryn Miller, chairwoman of the Loudoun County Planning Commission. "Water was a key issue when revising our general plan."

Fairfax County has effectively managed its water supply so far, according to Carl Bouchard, county director of storm-water planning development, yet "it still needs to be monitored."

Mr. Bouchard says he is urging the county to use storm-water management to recharge the groundwater table to avert a water-supply crisis. He points out that the county is also undertaking a five-year to seven-year effort for a watershed plan that will examine water quality as well as quantity.

Scarcity of water is an issue all jurisdictions in the Washington area must face, says Jim Williams, executive vice president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, based in Chantilly.

Local governments have "failed to provide citizens with basic infrastructure" needed to fuel economic growth, Mr. Williams says, because they simply failed to plan to provide sufficient water resources.

Mr. Williams says that halting construction is not a solution and that regional cooperation is needed to confront the water crisis instead of "isolationist, parochial views."

Solutions down the pipeline cannot help those already hurt by the drought, however.

Bob Marsh, president and general manager of Admar Custom Homes in Frederick, had to lay off seven of his 20 employees. He was so distraught, he says he could not sleep at night.

"Some of the people had been there for 10 years," he says. "It's devastating."

Mr. Marsh and others are frustrated with what they think is poor planning and a slow government response to the emergency. Mr. Marsh says he believes the city should be working harder on interim solutions.

He contends that the drastic step to stop construction reflects an "anti-growth" mentality, yet Frederick City officials say they had no choice but to implement severe measures.

"There are water issues we need to address, but to turn the tap off completely is not the answer," Mr. Marsh says. "We, as builders, are asking for fairness. Give us something to keep us moving."

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