Drought is emergency

conserve, governor says

Rain shortfall among worst in state history

restrictions imminent

July 30, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a statewide drought emergency yesterday -- the first in Maryland history -- and said mandatory water conservation measures "almost certainly" will be imposed as early as next week.

In the meantime, he called on Marylanders to voluntarily conserve water and said the state will provide $3 million to help farmers while also seeking federal aid.

Glendening made the announcements while standing on the banks of Liberty Reservoir, which is down 24 feet and now holds less than half its capacity of 43 billion gallons of water.

The reservoir in eastern Carroll County is one of three that supply water to 1.8 million people in the greater Baltimore area.

"We are in one of the worst droughts Maryland has ever experienced," Glendening said, adding that the problem demanded a statewide response.

"In the past, we have left this up to individual communities," he said. "But with water supplies very seriously stressed across the state, and with forecasters predicting only minimal relief, it is vital that we take a coordinated, comprehensive approach on a statewide basis."

He said he has asked a task force of state officials and business leaders to develop recommendations by Tuesday for mandatory water restrictions, starting with modest measures and becoming increasingly restrictive if the drought worsens.

The voluntary measures he has asked people to follow for now -- some of which might become mandatory -- are mostly such common-sense things as refraining from washing cars or watering lawns.

National Weather Service forecasters say the drought is the state's worst in 70 years, with rainfall nearly 40 percent below normal over the past year.

The lack of rain is expected to reduce crop yields and has led to a doubling in the incidence of forest fires, officials said.

Low water levels in Chesapeake Bay tributaries have contributed to fish kills.

The drought also has fostered an increase in the number of jellyfish in the bay -- the water is saltier, allowing them to thrive.

The prospects for short-term relief do not look good, according to weather forecasters.

"The weather pattern looks fairly dry for the next 10 days at least," said Dewey M. Walston, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

Walston said temperatures are expected to continue in the 90s through Monday -- weather that drives up water use and causes any rain that does fall to evaporate.

Hope for a hurricane?

He said he sees little hope for the drought to end anytime soon.

"Even if we got normal rainfall from here on out, it wouldn't affect it," Walston said.

"The only way to break this, usually, is a tropical storm or a hurricane."

Glendening said at least 60 communities in Maryland already have voluntary or mandatory water restrictions because of the drought.

He also noted the dropping water levels at the three reservoirs -- Liberty, Prettyboy and Loch Raven -- that supply water to much of the Baltimore area.

State officials said that if water use continues at the current rate and no rain falls, there is only a 35-day supply in the three reservoirs.

Perhaps enough for 60 days

Baltimore Public Works Director George G. Balog disputed that, saying the reservoirs contain enough water for at least 60 days. He said state officials might have misinterpreted some information in arriving at the lower figure.

Asked whether he was comfortable with the water level, Balog said, "Of course, I'd like to have more than a 60-day supply, but a 60-day supply is a lot more than a lot of people have right now."

Glendening said state aid will start flowing to farmers soon to be used to plant cover crops and for distribution of hay to protect the soil.

His offer of help is two-pronged.

By executive order, the governor is providing $3 million to help farmers plant wheat and other small grains this fall.

Fighting erosion, pollution

"Cover crops," as they are called, help prevent soil erosion and runoff of nutrients into nearby water ways.

"It does provide some help to the farmer, but it doesn't replace crops lost, by any stretch of the imagination," said Don Vandrey, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

The governor also has pledged to seek federal assistance.

The emergency board of the Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Columbia to make a county-by-county assessment of how badly the drought has hurt farmers.

If farmers in a given county have suffered a loss of 30 percent or more, they could be eligible for federal disaster loans of up to $500,000 at below-market rates.

"For those farmers that are up against the wall, it's great," Vandrey said.

Action in other states

Other states in the region also are taking steps to deal with the drought.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge declared a drought emergency July 20 in 55 counties, imposing mandatory water-use restrictions and vowing to work with federal officials to help suffering farmers.

The governors of Delaware and West Virginia have called on the public to cut water consumption and warned of possible mandatory restrictions, while parts of Virginia have been declared agricultural disaster areas.

Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Conserving water

The governor is urging Marylanders to take these steps to conserve water: Don't water flowers or grass.

* Don't wash cars or paved surfaces.

* Don't fill or top off swimming pools.

* Don't use water for ornamental fountains.

* Use washing machines or dishwashers only if full.

* Take shorter showers.

* Repair leaky faucets.

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