The agency that oversees water use on the Chesapeake’s largest tributary has taken action to control the tap on the Susquehanna water used by Baltimore.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission on June 19 unanimously voted to begin regulating water diversions from the river to the City of Baltimore, which also supplies portions of five surrounding counties.

While taking the action, members of the commission, which represents Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and the federal government, expressed hope that the city would choose to work with the SRBC to develop long-range plans that would offset impacts that potential withdrawals would have on the river.

“We believe Baltimore has a stake in building, rather than tearing down, a basinwide approach to water management,” said Paul Swartz, executive director of the SRBC.

But with three attorneys representing the commission in the room, it appeared likely that the action will set up a legal showdown with Baltimore, which had 90 days to appeal the action in a U.S. District Court.

Neal Janey, an outside counsel handling the matter for Baltimore, issued a statement criticizing the commission’s action and pledged that the city would “vigorously defend its right to protect this vital resource for the millions of Marylanders who rely on this water every day.”

The SRBC, which was established by Congress in 1970, has expressed concern that new water withdrawals by the city would affect other water users and the Chesapeake Bay during times of unusually low flows in the river.

While the Susquehanna is the largest river on the East Coast — it typically supplies half of the fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay — there often is barely enough water to go around during low flow periods in the late summer. The situation is worsened during protracted droughts. At a hearing in April, other river users and state agencies overwhelmingly opposed future unregulated withdrawals by the city.

Low flows affect the recreational uses of the Conowingo Pool — a reservoir that straddles the Pennsylvania-Maryland border behind the Conowingo Dam — and can result in salt water seeping into the drinking water supplies at Havre de Grace at the mouth of the river.

In addition, low flows threaten the Bay and its resources. Less fresh water flowing down the river means that salt water stretches farther up the Chesapeake, threatening salt-intolerant species of important underwater grasses in the upper Bay.

Low flows in late summer could affect the survival of migratory fish, such as shad, which move downstream at that time. Flow changes could affect waterfowl, oysters and other species as well.

“We recommend that the SRBC use caution in considering any proposals to increase water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River, not because of current conditions but because of the certainty and gravity of future droughts,” said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office, in a letter to the commission.

Because of such concerns, the SRBC requires anyone who consumes more than 20,000 gallons of water per day to compensate for their use during times of low flow. Compensation can take a variety of forms, from constructing upstream reservoirs that release water during droughts, or paying the SRBC to purchase water from upstream federal reservoirs, which is then released into the river to maintain minimum flows.

Historically, the city has used water from the river only occasionally as a backup to its own reservoirs. Over the past 34 years, its average daily withdrawal has only been 5.26 million gallons a day.

Baltimore officials have said that they have no immediate intention of increasing their withdrawals from the river. At the same time, though, they have argued that agreements predating the commission’s formation allow it to withdraw up to 250 million gallons a day from the Susquehanna.

The SRBC has sought to negotiate ways to offset the impact of future water withdrawals by the city for the past five years — ever since a city consultants’ report suggested that Baltimore would need to dramatically increase its use of Susquehanna water in the future.

The June 19 vote came after attempts at negotiation reached an impasse.

The issue was further complicated in May when the city filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission arguing that FERC — not the SRBC — has authority over withdrawals from the reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam. The SRBC strongly disputes that contention.

Under the June 19 resolution, the commission would regulate Baltimore water withdrawals if:

  • it constructs a new water treatment facility to treat water withdrawn from the Susquehanna River;
  • it installs new equipment that in-creases its pumping capacity from the river;
  • it changes its historic method of operation by beginning a steady diversion of water from the river or taking water during extreme low flow periods; or
  • it begins selling water to Harford County, as has been proposed, or any other area not presently served by the city’s water system.

Commission members said that, despite their action, they plan to continue conversations with the city over the development of a long-term plan to manage water withdrawals from the river — something the commission says is critical for everyone who relies on Susquehanna water.

“We are acting in the city’s best interest,” said SRBC Chairman J.L. Hearn.” We hope they recognize that.”