Water limits looming for Md.

Glendening orders Baltimore to pump from Susquehanna

Ban urged on outdoor uses

August 04, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Declaring that urgent action is needed to ease a looming water crisis, Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered a reluctant Baltimore yesterday to start tapping the Susquehanna River, and his advisers urged him to ban all outdoor water use statewide.

Glendening, brushing aside remarks from city officials playing down the Baltimore area's water shortage, issued an executive order directing the city to begin pumping from the Susquehanna immediately. Water piped from the river could stretch the dwindling supply of water in three reservoirs that serve the city and surrounding counties.

By today or tomorrow, the governor is expected to act on a task force recommendation that he impose mandatory, statewide water conservation measures, such as prohibiting watering of lawns and washing of cars. Glendening said he wanted to mull the panel's proposal before making a decision, but made it clear that restrictions are coming.

"Yes, there'll be some loss of lawns and flowers," Glendening said, noting that he is especially fond of the azaleas at his University Park home. "There will be some serious inconveniences."

But if everyone cooperates, he added, "I believe we can pull through the most serious drought we've had in at least six or seven decades."

The eight-member task force Glendening asked to come up with conservation measures urged the governor yesterday to ban all outdoor water uses -- including filling backyard swimming pools and hosing down sidewalks -- and to require all businesses to reduce consumption by 10 percent.

The panel had planned to recommend a series of graduated restrictions, starting with relatively minor rationing such as lawn watering on alternate days.

But Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida, the task force chairwoman, said the state's water shortage is so severe that "we believe a phased approach will not be sufficient."

Restrictions will be monitored by local police, with violators getting first-time warnings and then fines of up to $1,000 an incident.

It was not clear how quickly the city would draw water from the Susquehanna -- or even if it would. Glendening said that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had personally assured him last week that the city would cooperate with state water conservation efforts. The city supplies water to 1.8 million customers in Baltimore and all or parts of five suburban counties.

But the city's public works director, George G. Balog, later publicly questioned the need to tap the Susquehanna and suggested voluntary conservation measures are enough for now. Balog, who is in charge of the water system, contended last week that the three reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties still had at least 60 days' of water, not the 35-day supply state officials said remained.

Both Schmoke and Balog were out of town yesterday.

Schmoke's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, said the mayor was alerted yesterday to expect an order from the governor. Once it arrives, Coleman said, "The law department looks forward to reviewing it."

Publicly, the governor's aides said Glendening ordered the city to start withdrawing water from the Susquehanna to ensure prompt action, because the river flow is down by 60 percent and likely to drop. Privately, they said they were troubled by indications that city officials might drag their feet.

Glendening dismissed Balog's comments of last week as "silly."

"Sixty days [of water] for 1.8 million people is a serious problem," the governor said. He ordered the city to withdraw as much water from the Susquehanna as could be taken without endangering other users of the river, including nuclear and hydroelectric power plants.

Part of the city's reluctance to tap the Susquehanna may stem from a lawsuit pending over Baltimore's legal rights to do so. The governor's staff released a letter from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission saying it would allow the city to take the water, as long as it moves quickly, while there is still water to divert.

Some parts of the state are not as dry as others. In the Washington area, for instance, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission contends it has enough water in reservoirs to supply its customers into the fall. But the governor's task force concluded that "the entire state's in a serious situation," Nishida said.

Water restrictions could hurt some businesses, especially smaller ones, said the panel's business representative, Donald Hutchinson, director of the Greater Baltimore Committee. Commercial carwashes that recycle their water -- and likely could stay open -- could see a jump in business, he said, but older carwashes without recycling could be hurt.

Despite potential hardships, Hutchinson predicted broad business support for conservation measures.

"Either we do something now, or have dire consequences down the road," Hutchinson said.

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