Drought dries up pool industry

Construction on hold as builders, buyers fear water restrictions

August 03, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Teresa Kostelec of Ellicott City took out a second mortgage so she and her family could swim in their back yard next month. Now, because of the drought, they are staring at a huge hole that might remain dry -- unless they pay perhaps hundreds of dollars extra.

"I can't imagine having a swimming pool sitting there in September with the kids looking at it," Kostelec said yesterday. "You go into it thinking how long would it take to build a pool, a few weeks. No, you don't think about droughts."

But an expected announcement from Gov. Parris N. Glendening on water restrictions this week has everyone in the swimming pool industry thinking -- and worried -- about the drought. For customers like Kostelec waiting for pools to be finished, contractors and water transporters, it's not just about water supply -- it's a question of livelihood.

The governor called for voluntary water restrictions Friday -- among other things, asking people not to fill or top off pools. It has not been determined whether that will be made mandatory. Businesses and pool buyers are hoping that he will exempt newly built swimming pools, as Pennsylvania did.

"Grass will grow back next year. The car -- you can wash that next month," said Bob Webber, who owns Rands Transport in Linthicum, a water transport company. "But to take the water away from the people whose livelihood depends on it, that's a difficult decision for [Glendening] to make."

Pool contractors cannot finish building a pool unless they can fill it. Otherwise the concrete holding the pool together can crack. So many are putting their projects on hold until they are certain water will be available when they are done.

"I don't get paid until I'm done," said Brian Smorgen, a construction manager at Spartin Pools and Spas in Linthicum. "I am almost done with four."

The price of a new pool generally ranges between $17,000 and $100,000. The prime season for pool contractors is May through August. Last month, about 60 residents applied for pool permits in Carroll and Howard counties.

For people like Kostelec, the price would rise if pools are restricted. She'd have to pay a fine for using water or pay what suppliers say might be hundreds of dollars to import water from an area or state where there are no restrictions -- costs she says she will bear, if necessary.

How much the drought could cost customers is a matter of debate at Gregory and Wilma Peppers' home in Ellicott City, where they too are staring at a hole that is beginning to look like a swimming pool. The indentation for the hot tub, the steps and the deep end are in place. Their contractors finished digging yesterday, but the Peppers no longer know when their pool will be ready.

"I've waited 10 years for a pool. If I don't have one for another few months, that's OK," said Gregory Peppers.

His wife disagrees.

"I am a lot more concerned about it not being built because of the economics," said Wilma Peppers. "Why build a pool now if it is not going to be used until next spring?"

Those who have water in their pools are safe for now. If water restrictions are imposed, they will simply not be allowed to refill, making it difficult to clean the pool.

If pools aren't completed and filling is restricted, local water transporters also suffer. Carroll County already is feeling the effects of voluntary restrictions.

"We were told we couldn't get water in Westminster and had to have it trucked in from Baltimore County," said Timothy Gogel, who paid $220 to fill his above-ground pool two weeks ago.

Concerned about the extremely dry weather, Westminster officials asked residents last week to voluntarily conserve water and refrain from outdoor water use.

About 65 percent of the customers that Webber, the water transporter, serves are pool contractors, and he is planning to make eight of his 10 drivers go on vacation this week if the governor announces restrictions on pools.

"When the voluntary restriction began last week, my drivers started worrying," Webber said.

Last week, Webber earned $17,370 delivering water to area pools, residents and nurseries -- a normal summer.

"I've got people who want me to park my water trailer in their back yard," he said.

But for now, everyone is just waiting for -- and trying to beat -- the governor's next announcement.

Wayne Martin beat the rush by having his above-ground pool filled yesterday.

"When we heard last week that [the restrictions] might happen, we called the company to get it done first thing this week," said the Lineboro resident. "We probably would have had to wait until next year. It would have been upsetting."

Sun staff writers Brenda J. Buote and Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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