Cure for drought? A drenching

Weather experts hope for hurricane remnant

July 31, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance and Timothy B. Wheeler | Frank D. Roylance and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Bring on a hurricane. Preferably the remnants of someone else's storm.

Weather officials are careful how they say it, but they acknowledge that the only quick way to quench the drought that is parching Maryland and the region is rain -- days and days of tropical rain.

"We don't want a situation that's going to bring along with it substantial damage along the coast or flash flooding in the mountains," said Robert Livezey, of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

"But a decaying tropical system that didn't lead to flash floods would be just what the doctor ordered."

If the heavens don't relent and open up -- a passing thunderstorm won't be enough -- Marylanders should expect weeks of mandatory conservation, with neighbors nagging neighbors to shut off the hose and maybe even dropping a dime to call the cops.

The Baltimore region could also be forced to look north, beyond its own drying reservoirs, and tap the similarly depleted waters of the Susquehanna River.

Given the bad blood between the city and the commission that regulates withdrawals from the river, that's likely to inflame an old legal and political tug of war.

On Thursday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening walked out on the dried bottom of Liberty Reservoir and declared the state's first-ever statewide drought emergency.

Depending on who does the measuring, the Baltimore area's three major reservoirs hold barely enough water to supply residents for one or two months, assuming no rain falls in the meantime to replenish them.

So wishing quietly for a tropical storm or a drenching brush with a passing hurricane is not such a crazy notion, Livezey said.

"Historically, the eastern United States -- particularly the Southeast, but also to some extent the mid-Atlantic states -- gets a fair portion of its rainfall from tropical systems," he said.

"So coming up in the next two months, hopefully we will have a shot at relief. But we can't say with confidence that that's going to happen."

Hurricane season

August and September are the busiest times in the Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricane forecaster William M. Gray of Colorado State University has said he expects this to be one of the busier seasons since 1950, with a 60 percent increase in the normal storm activity in the tropics.

Basing his forecasts on a variety of factors, Gray has predicted 14 named storms this season and nine hurricanes. He said there's a 54 percent chance that one or more of these storms will make landfall on the East Coast, including Florida.

Direct landfalls on Maryland have been rare in this century. But the state has seen many storms drop prodigious amounts of rain as they blew by. Many others, such as Agnes in 1972, have left drenched tracks across the state after a landfall somewhere else.

But "maybe" is the most meteorologists can say about the chances of relief from a tropical storm or hurricane.

More reliable and immediate responses to the drought, officials say, must lie in conservation or a long reach to the Susquehanna.

State officials say they're still considering what mandatory restrictions the governor might impose next week. But the voluntary cutbacks Glendening urged Thursday offer a pretty good starting point for what's likely -- no watering lawns and gardens, washing cars or filling swimming pools, among others.

Voluntary bans on outdoor water uses have been in effect for weeks in all or parts of a dozen counties in Central, Western and Southern Maryland. Mandatory curbs have been imposed in some small communities, notably mobile home parks and those supplied by small well-based water companies.

Simply appealing for conservation seems to help.

In Havre de Grace, a 3-week-old voluntary ban has reduced consumption about 10 percent. "We're seeing more burned-out yards," said Arthur Doty, the city's public works director.

Consumption goes down

Water use in Baltimore's system fell by more than 20 percent to 300 million gallons a day Thursday -- whether because of the governor's drought-emergency declaration or passing thunderstorms, no one can say.

"Encouragingly enough, it's going down," said George G. Balog, Baltimore's public works director, who is in charge of the reservoir-based system supplying 1.8 million customers in the city and all or parts of four suburban counties.

Meanwhile, Maryland officials are pressing Baltimore to stretch its depleted reservoirs by tapping the Susquehanna, an option that city officials have gone to court to protect but which they are now reluctant to use.

The city has drawn water from the Susquehanna just above the Conowingo Dam at least eight times in the past 40 years, pumping more than 100 million gallons per day through an underground pipeline to the Lake Montebello treatment plant in Northeast Baltimore.

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