It's not the drought -- it's people hogging water


June 27, 1999|By Mike Burns

WHAT DROUGHT? There, I've said it. And I mean it.

Excuse me for my lack of remorse that some underprivileged citizens must refrain from daily ablutions of their dusty buggies, that the prodigal drenching of their lawns must be stayed by government ukase. I'll admit to an unsympathetic feeling toward those who consider wanton use of water an inalienable right.

As this column is written, half of the past 10 days have seen rain in this area. That's no sign of prolonged drought.

Yes, the long-term rainfall is below normal, and reservoirs are low from a warm winter that produced less than expected precipitation. But every year's rainfall is either above-normal or below-normal: average precipitation is a statistical figure seldom matched.

The nature of life

It is the nature (or Nature) of life on Earth. Humans must cope with the annual or seasonal variations of water levels, through planning and prudent use of these essential resources. Ignoring the limits to fresh water supply is a recipe for disaster. Preparing year-round for dry spells is a necessity for regions where summer water shortages appear to be a perennial problem.

Water is not free, even though it occupies three-quarters of the planet's surface. While the average consumer may consider the cost of water to be reflected in the bills from water treatment plants, water's fundamental value is in its natural supply, not in making it potable or delivering it through convenient networks of pipe.

And if water supplies are limited, or vary considerably, the answer is not in short-term "emergency" controls and cries of disaster every summer. The answer lies in a healthier respect for the resource and an attitude that perpetually embraces rational conservation.

Remember your parents always reminding you as a child to turn off the water? That's a commandment of saving that needs repeating more than ever these days, as more of us compete for finite quantities of usable water.

People who get their water from their own wells are more aware of the matter. Water doesn't gush out of a government cornucopia, its supply of no concern. Well water is acquired by costly drilling, maintenance, pump replacement, storage tanks and filters, treatment chemicals.

Most well owners know the "gallons per minute" their well yields. Many of them are acutely attuned to the humming of their well pump as it sucks water from deep underground aquifers; if the pump stays on too long, it's cause for anxiety that something may be wrong. The agonizing uncertainty of replacing a dry well, to say nothing of the heavy expense, makes water a more precious commodity for the person dependent on a private well.

Much of Carroll County's municipal water supplies also come from wells. But these communal facilities do not inspire a deliberate ethic of conservation: The water is treated as an unending bounty. Limits are to be overcome by engineering and construction, by a few more cents added to water-sewage rates.

Frightening statistic

Consider this frightening statistic. The county's water customers in southeast Freedom District used an average 523 gallons per day over Memorial Day weekend. That arrogant excess led to an immediate ban on outside water use, which is becoming an annual, belated exercise in the quick fix.

We know that a single "customer" usually consists of a family or other group of people. But this magnitude of consumption -- in an area whose residents are ever complaining about overburdened resources -- boggles the mind.

Was everyone filling the backyard pool and taking hourly showers that weekend?

To be fair, the county's utilities bureau this spring sent letters to 150 South Carroll households urging conservation. Those customers were using two to three times the daily average for the area.

But officials said there was nothing they could do to enforce conservation.

At heart, the problem is not a shortage of water but a superfluity of people. A community can continue to build a fleet of reserve storage tanks, but at some point the reserves will be depleted if the underlying attitude of profligate water use is not curbed.

Farmers taking risks

Farmers may well bemoan the lack of rain for their crops. Yet, as Sun reporter Anne Haddad recently wrote, they find it uneconomical to install irrigation and extensive reserve storage facilities.

Most years, bring a summer cry of drought disaster in some part of Maryland, from growers who have long experience with the fluctuations of weather and the effects on crops. They've made a calculated business assessment of risk.

If next year sees a superabundance of precipitation, the potential problem will remain.

Encouraging rational water use and conservation 12 months of the year is still the most effective approach for assuring vital water supplies.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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