Water rules cause flood of questions

Families, businesses seek clarification of new restrictions

Carwash owners cry foul

Most jurisdictions offer reminders, don't cite violators yet


Marylanders flooded government switchboards with questions yesterday, while some residents poured bathwater on plants and carwash owners steamed as statewide water-use restrictions took effect.

A telephone hot line set up by the state fielded 250 to 500 calls an hour yesterday, as homeowners asked whether they had to let their fish or flowers die (Answer: No) and business owners questioned how the curbs on outdoor water use applied to carwashes and golf courses and water parks.

Police departments geared up to begin handing out warnings and citations to violators, even as complaints about water wasters started trickling in.

In Baltimore, meanwhile, city officials announced they would start tapping the Susquehanna River early next week to supplement the shrinking reservoirs that serve 1.8 million people in the city and suburbs.

The declaration came two days after the governor ordered the city to begin drawing water from the river immediately.

"I want to cooperate with the state," said George G. Balog, the city's public works director, who on Wednesday had called the governor's order to tap the Susquehanna premature.

People seemed willing -- or at least resigned -- to do their part by complying with the ban on lawn sprinklers and home car washing.

"We leave our bathwater in the tub overnight to water the plants in the morning," said R. Delaine Hobbs, who is president of the Mount Airy Town Council in Carroll County.

He said other town residents are collecting water from their air conditioners and humidifiers for their plants.

Most businesses also seemed comfortable with the governor's call to conserve in what might be the mid-Atlantic region's worst drought in a century.

Commercial carwashes

The one exception was commercial carwashes, which were ordered to shut down unless they recycled at least 80 percent of the water they used.

"I'm wholeheartedly behind [water conservation], but it's left a bad taste in my mouth just because our water use is so visible," said Benson Rice, owner of Whiz Car Wash.

He closed all eight of his locations in the Baltimore area yesterday after being told to by a city inspector.

"We're not using any more than the average business," said Rice, who estimated that none of his establishments used more than 7,500 gallons in a day.

All other businesses that use more than 10,000 gallons a day are asked to voluntarily reduce consumption by 10 percent.

"To say everyone has to restrict their water usage slightly, but you have to close, that's not fair," Rice said.

Whiz will keep its employees working on maintenance and other chores for now, the owner said, but will be forced to make layoffs if the shutdown continues.

In response to the prohibition, the Mid-Atlantic Carwash Association released a statement objecting to the water restrictions yesterday, saying its members were being "unfairly penalized."

Said association spokesman Tony de Lange of Baltimore: "Restaurants, marinas [and] golf courses can still operate and we believe we should, too."

State officials were unmoved by the carwash owners' complaints.

"The goal of this is not to target any specific industry, it's to reduce use of water," said Michael Morrill, the governor's spokesman.

"We are not allowing people to wash their cars at home. When you don't allow them to wash at home but allow them to go down the street, you haven't saved any water."

Morrill said state officials were led to believe that most carwashes recycle almost all their water.

But owners of some older establishments contend they are the only businesses being forced to close by the restrictions.

"For the government indiscriminately to say close your doors, I think, is a very unfair and shortsighted approach," complained Thomas Marsh, who reluctantly shut down his self-serve carwash in McCool, a small town on the Potomac River in Allegany County.

His businesses -- including a coin laundry and restaurant, are supplied by wells.

"I easily lose $1,500 to $2,000 a month over this," he said.

The operator of at least one shut-down Baltimore area carwash hoped to reopen today.

Steve Harris, owner of Mr. Wash, said he had rushed water-reclamation equipment to his Catonsville outlet, the only one of seven locations that did not already have it.

"It's very expensive," Harris said, estimating the equipment cost $20,000.

Operators of deck-cleaning or exterior washing businesses also seemed to be hamstrung by the order not to spray water outdoors.

"I put all my residential [work] on hold until the drought is over with," said Dewaine Hillenburg, co-owner of D&D Powerwash in Chase.

He said he could get by for now without doing household decks, but, "If I can't have this income, I'm going to be really in trouble. It's me, my wife and my little girl."

"The governor acknowledged this will cause pain," said Morrill, "but at the same time not nearly the pain it will cause if we start running out of water."

Limits in other states

He noted that New Jersey also banned car-washing in water-use restrictions imposed yesterday.

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