September 27, 2002

Representative Wayne Smith called for state government action to make Delaware self-sufficient in its supply of drinking water by 2010.  Otherwise, he said, coping with drought will become "more than a matter of inconvenience," escalating into a public-health concern.

Voluntary and mandatory restrictions on use of water, such as those now in effect, are not an acceptable response to what appears to be the likelihood of recurring dry spells, he said. Likewise, relying on out-of-state sources in times of shortages will not work beyond the point where an emergency becomes severe enough to cause authorities to cut off access to them.

Calling this year's experience "one heck of a warning shot," he declared, "We have to meet this problem head-on. ... We need to generate hundreds of millions gallons of excess capacity."

Speaking on Sept. 26 at a media event on the banks of the drought-depleted Brandywine during what, somewhat ironically, turned out to be a rainy day, the leader of the Republican majority in the state House of Representatives proposed several measures he said would provide a long-term solution to the water-supply problem.

Using existing but so far unused regulatory power, he said the Public Service Commission should require private water utilities to regularly document their ability to meet demand during a proverbial worst-case scenario -- a drought with a severity that would be anticipated only once in 100 years. The commission, he said, can require the companies to invest in the infrastructure necessary to achieve that level of reliability or establish guaranteed arrangements to purchase needed supplies for delivery to their customers.

In the public domain, Smith urged immediate action to provide reservoir storage space and related hardware to assure adequate reserves to deal with that same kind of emergency.

He said he does not specifically advocate proceeding with construction of a large reservoir such as has been proposed for the Churchmans Marsh area along Interstate 95 south of Wilmington, but said the pros and cons of proceeding in that direction should be seriously considered. He indicated, however, that his thinking runs in favor of pursuing smaller and more easily achieved  projects.

Smith said it would be easier and more palatable to consider building a network of small interconnected reservoirs, especially in areas like Brandywine Hundred. He noted that Cool Spring Reservoir in Wilmington occupies just two city blocks.

The state. he said, should consider partnering with the city and New Castle County in exploring the feasibility of moving forward with Wilmington Mayor James Baker's proposal to build a desalination plant to tap into the Delaware River as a principal source of supply.

A shorter-range possibility, Smith added, would be to expand Hoopes Reservoir, the city system's last line of defense against running out of water. He said a water company official has told him that it would cost less than $3 million to raise the water level in that reservoir to a point where it could hold an additional 300 million gallons.

Stormwater-retention ponds throughout the county could be made to contribute to available supply by converting them to drain into the underground aquifer rather than into streams.

The third leg of a solution, he said, lies with water users.

He proposed that Delaware suppliers adopt the practice used in some western states of charging increasingly higher rates as consumption increases rather than taking the opposite tack, as they now do. That would provide an incentive for individual conservation efforts and should be coupled with an intensive public-education campaign.

Regulators also should keep a sharper eye on users of large amounts of water to make sure they do not draw down more than their allotments, he said.

2002. All rights reserved.

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