Nearly 100 people--about half private citizens and half state or county officials--gathered in Prince Frederick on Wednesday to discuss the future of a resource that has become increasingly threatened in the region: drinking water.

In a public forum organized by state Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-Calvert, St. Mary's) and the Calvert County League of Women Voters, residents sounded off on problems with their wells, frustration with developers tapping into aquifers already heavily used and worries about saltwater intrusion into the ground water.

Panelists, including three members of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's cabinet, answered questions and gave presentations, the main one on an aquifer study proposed by tri-county officials.

The study would cost more than $1 million and would include the drilling of at least six test wells to determine the extent and depth of the Patapsco aquifer, which is larger and deeper than the Aquia and Piney Point/Nanjemoy aquifers that most residents use. So far, elected commissioners from the three Southern Maryland counties have agreed to help fund the study and are awaiting word on whether the state will pick up the rest of the cost.

Dyson said the forum, held at the Calvert Pines Senior Center, was instrumental in reiterating the area's water problem to representatives from the Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture departments. Dyson, who hopes the department chiefs will recommend funding the study, said the response from state officials has been heartening.

"They didn't say yes, but they're very close to saying yes," Dyson said. "The state has a surplus, and I think we're going to see this in the governor's budget. I think it's going to happen."

For residents who attended the forum, the main concern seemed to be that rapid residential and commercial development would continue before the proposed study can be completed, which is not expected until 2003. They said the results of the study could help guide regional development policy.

Some at the forum suggested alternatives to wells, such as reservoirs, but the infrastructure needed would be too costly, Dyson said. Many residents complained that it's reckless to add wells to the aquifer without a clear idea of how much water is available.

"We may be playing Russian roulette, or it may not be a concern at all," Dyson said. "If there's one message we are trying to send, it's that we don't know what's down there."