Somerset County citizens deserve a well-thought-out response to the challenge of providing needed water to the Princess Anne Subdistrict. The Somerset County Sanitary District continues to hold to its original position — refusing to provide water treatment — even as new information indicates treatment is available and affordable.
The Revell’s Neck wells the district proposes to drill will tap into an underground source of water that is naturally high in fluoride and dissolved minerals. Unless treated, this water will be unsuitable for everyday household use. In fact, the high fluoride levels would require the district to issue this notice: “Children under 9 should be provided with alternative sources of drinking water or water that has been treated to remove the fluoride, to avoid the possibility of staining and pitting of their permanent teeth.”
The levels of dissolved minerals would also be high and could cause scaling in hot water heaters and an unpleasant taste and odor. The district does not dispute this, but it thinks the cost of treatment is too high.
The Maryland Department of the Environment is offering a solution to the cost issue which the district can accept without giving up its argument. If it wants to dispute MDE’s right to require treatment in the future (in Crisfield, for example), it can do so. Accepting the solution will ensure enough good quality drinking water at a reasonable cost, so Princess Anne may grow.
A fortuitous combination of circumstance keeps the costs down. Because Eastern Correctional Institution needs to enlarge and upgrade its reverse osmosis plant, there is an opportunity to build a plant large enough to supply water to both ECI and the Princess Anne Subdistrict. The Maryland Environmental Service, which currently operates the RO facility, would also operate the new plant. Gov. Martin O’Malley recently announced MDE’s proposal to award a grant of $6 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to cover all of Somerset County’s portion of the cost of building a new water treatment plant at ECI. MDE published the list of projects selected for funding on March 20, and the list has been submitted to the EPA for final approval.
The $6 million is a grant. Contrary to the district’s claim that residents of Somerset County would have to match part of the stimulus funding with a local share, no matching funds are required.
The district has already secured a grant and a loan from USDA Rural Development for the proposed wells, water line and storage tower. The stimulus funding would allow construction of the RO facility at no additional cost to the district or to county residents. The Sanitary District has made an issue of the operations and maintenance costs for an RO facility, saying it has “been told” operations and maintenance could cost $700 per user per year. The district didn’t mention that its own consultant estimated much lower O&M costs or that other estimates have been as low as $65 per user, per year.
Rather than using the inflated figure, the district should honestly evaluate the cost. Based on the experience of other RO facilities, MDE is confident the O&M costs will be far lower than $700 per year and will be within federally-approved affordability guidelines for water rates in communities like Somerset County.
Reverse osmosis is an effective method used all over the world for treating water. It is not “environmentally unsound,” as claimed by the district. Wastewater generated by this process, which would contain the fluoride and minerals removed, can be treated and disposed of in a way that will not harm the Chesapeake Bay. The district’s alternative would leave the fluoride and minerals in the drinking water where, after use, it would similarly end up in the bay.
Somerset County’s ability to grow depends on getting additional water. We now have a viable alternative that is both affordable and protective. We urge the Sanitary Commission and Somerset County to join us in moving forward to design and build an RO system to provide abundant, high quality water to Somerset County.