Can Charles County’s water resources keep pace with development?

When the Board of Charles County Commissioners return from their summer break, they will be considering legislation that will accelerate the approval of development projects that have been stuck in the pipeline for years, and in some cases for decades. That plus the greenlighting of large marquee projects like the Waldorf Station mixed-use transit-oriented development and the Hub in La Plata suggest that Charles County is likely to see a new construction boom on a scale not seen since the 1990s.

With the county commissioners and the Charles County Planning Commission on their annual summer recesses, TLR has an opportunity to explore some of the potential impacts of these changes on the county’s infrastructure. This week, we’ll look at the condition of Charles County’s water supply. As new developments are constructed, will the county be able to keep up with residents’ demands for fresh, potable water?

Aquifers supply nearly all of Charles County’s public water system, which serves around 65% of the county’s residents. From 1962, when the county completed its first public water system, through the early 1980s, the county drew most of its water from the shallow and easy to reach Magothy Aquifer. But as the county population grew, so did the drain on the aquifer, and the county was forced to reduce its draw to allow the aquifer to stabilize and gradually refill.

To make up for the loss, the county began drilling deeper into the much larger Lower Patapsco Aquifer. Today, the Lower Patapsco supplies roughly half of the water used in the county’s water supply system. However, a 2006 report issued by the ad hoc Water Resources Advisory Commission found that water levels in that aquifer, too, have decreased significantly as more developments have tied into the county’s water supply system.

Seemingly the only solution has been to dig deeper. In 2013, the Maryland Geological Survey drilled four test wells in northern Charles County to probe the Patuxent Aquifer, the deepest water source in the region and the last available aquifer before striking solid bedrock. The MGS found that a combination of not very porous rock in the aquifer and the excessive drilling depth may not make it commercially viable to tap into it, but the Maryland Department of the Environment revised the county’s groundwater permits to allow it to tap into the Patuxent Aquifer to complement its reliance on the Lower Potomac and Magothy aquifers.

The county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan focuses on identifying alternative sources of groundwater needed to sustain the county’s growing population. The plan recommends working with MDE, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (from which the county already obtains a small fraction of its water), and other agencies to “identify, access, and sustainably utilize groundwater resources” and to investigate the possibility of purchasing more water from WSSC, “coordinating with Prince George’s County as necessary.” It also proposes investigating the desalination of surface water sources — i.e., pulling in water from the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

The comp plan also lays out actions the Board of Charles County Commissioners can take to address water shortfall issues, but each of them would involve lengthy review and approval processes, including public review and comment, meaning that even if they were to begin today, they would not be ready for implementation for several years at least — not to mention the time required to actually build the necessary infrastructure.

The county faces two immediate challenges in meeting the demand for water — one foreseen, the other not. The foreseen problem is, of course, the county’s population growth and the resulting increase in development to support that growth. For many years, Charles County has firmly held on to the title of the state’s second fastest growing county per capita. One recent analysis, for example, predicts that the population in the Waldorf area alone will increase 57% between 2010 and 2040.

The other problem is one that no one could have predicted: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, on any given weekday somewhere around 65% of the county’s adult workforce commutes to work in another jurisdiction. For the water supply system, that means for at least eight hours a day (10 if you factor in the average commute) for five out of seven days, tens of thousands of people are not drawing on the county’s water supply. With teleworking requirements now in place for many federal and state workers, those people are now using county water all day long. And as teleworking looks to become a long-term, if not permanent, option for the nonessential workforce, it’s probably going to have some sort of impact on water use estimates.

The impact of teleworking is probably not likely to have a drastic impact on available water sources, but it is certainly something to factor into future planning by the county’s elected officials and its planning and development staff. The impact of population growth, of course, is already baked in to the comp plan and the county’s efforts to update its zoning ordinance and subdivision plans.

There’s also another factor looming over the horizon. At their last open session before the summer recess, the Board of Charles County Commissioners voted to move forward with public review of a new Climate Resilience Action Strategy, the result of an effort by County Administrator Mark Belton — who previously served as the state’s Secretary of the Environment — to ensure the county’s natural and built resources are prepared to weather the impacts of climate change. The draft plan does discuss water quality, but focuses on the central importance of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay to the county’s economy rather than on the potential effects of rising sea levels on aquifer contamination — a far-off issue, certainly, but one to be considered. Plus, the potential for increased migration into and within the county due to the chronic flooding of low-lying subdivisions or farm-destroying droughts could also strain the county’s existing water supply infrastructure and require the construction of new water supply systems — and they are not cheap to build.

It’s been five years since the last presentation by county staff to the Planning Commission on the state of Charles County’s water resources. As the county begins easing off the brakes on growth, it’s probably time for another status report that takes these and other recent developments into consideration.

illustration: Charles County Government