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Wellhead Protection

March 1, 2006

by Jack Lynch

In some form, wellhead protection will come to Frederick County.  It is a part of the overall clean water regulations required by the simple protection of public health, the stateís duties under the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments, and ultimately the EPAís oversight enforcement of water quality.  As estuarine and tributary strategies have progressed, the real need to trace back to the source of the waters has become apparent as a necessary requirement to insure water quality.

The issue has long been debated, and relief has been sought by several municipalities as they faced challenges to protecting their local water supplies; such as Middletown, where natural spring sources are close to the ground, and distinctly tied to land use.

The enactment of proper protections rightly falls to the individual counties because their ground level circumstances, and needs and challenges, vary greatly. Maryland has seen specific groundwater threats from leaking gasoline additions like MTBE in the Baltimore region.  In far western Maryland, residue from mine operations is a culprit in groundwater contamination.

The guiding definitions, of how development impacts the groundwater, change as growth occurs and spreads in a county like Frederick.  The traditional industries and the geographic placement of commercial uses affects the standards needed to protect the specific aquifers. 

A factor in future land uses, and the costs inherent in building and meeting new standards in the outlined areas, will be advanced septic systems when public water and sewer are unavailable.  The unfortunate effect will likely not be limiting growth on the slopes and agricultural areas defined, but rather continuing to push the costs of building there to a point where home costs there are higher, the homes larger and the sprawl effect increased.  Only the mini-mansions will afford the extra $10,000 septic nitrogen removal systems, regardless of state funds for improvements and new technology.

And septic systems are generally not the great concern.  Itís first, chemical use, and then nutrient enhancement or other biological inputs like excessive fertilization, such as golf courses.  Other major concern will be site specific hazards to water resources, such as storage and disposal or use of chemicals, gas stations, and mining.  The use of road salts in winter will likely need to bring about a reduction or exchange, for non-chemical abrasives.

An inventory of possible contaminant sources and corrective actions for existing hazards, conditional use of new development of potential hazard sites, and planning for rapid response to leakages, spills and contaminations will be necessitated.

The earth beneath our feet operates somewhat like a sponge or large filter for water.  The water ultimately comes to us primarily from rainfall.  The layers of mixed earth and stone can generally filter the water slowly back to the aquifer, recharging it by replenishment.  


The process helps to clean impurities and organic contaminants.  Below those comparatively thin layers of soil are a base of limestone or bedrock formations, and they are fractured.  The fractures are where the water runs, and thatís where your wells are most successful.  In limestone itís a bit like swiss cheese and the water also erodes away new channels constantly.

Why the great rabble rousing of property rights over the discussion of wellhead protection last Tuesday evening in Winchester Hall? 

Itís a Board of County Commissioners election year, and the big question, from both sides of the growth debate, is to test out what are the relative strengths of the property rights folks, and of the moderate growth proponents. 

And there is the factor of gaining support for a negative impact by substituting minor impact regulations in place of the greater feared negative impact on development rights: water is a limited resource. 

If you had always gotten a free sandwich at lunch, then one day it was announced that there would be no more free sandwiches at lunch because there simply werenít enough to go around, youíd feel that you were losing everything, until it was turned around, and announced that there would still be free half sandwiches for lunch.  Itís a classic political bait and switch.

It will be a year that tests the public reaction to twenty years of forward planning for massive growth, and consequently, the pushing of the unbridled infrastructure costs upon the public, to support development interests.  Thatís the stuff of drama, and fear mongering, and even of some honest debate; it can change electoral outcomes, and is typical of the countyís swings over the past twenty years.  Apparently, this is a litmus test.

Will the current crop of Commissioners retain three hands for paving the county, or will a new crop of faces take their places?  The last election saw nearly twenty names placed in the ring.  Many were disappointed.  Will some of them be back?  You can bet they are taking a long look at running, and crouching at the sidelines to pounce if they see easy prey.