Call it the Green Lawn Patrol.
Police throughout the Baltimore area were on the lookout yesterday for people watering lawns, washing cars or topping off swimming pools -- routine summertime chores now deemed criminal acts under Maryland's statewide water restrictions.
The mayor of Mount Airy took to the streets to sneak up on illegal water users, catching five, and warned that he would cut off water to second-time offenders.
A patrol officer in Northeast Baltimore spotted Thomas Curran, 65, standing on his front lawn holding a running hose. The cousin of Maryland's attorney general, the state's top law enforcement officer, received an oral warning.
"I'm just watering my flowers," Curran told Officer Khamla Soukaseum, before turning off his outdoor tap.
"I know we need the water badly."
Baltimore police, along with those in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, sent patrol cars to each water use complaint. Baltimore County took a less aggressive approach, preferring to send written notices to suspected violators.
As local authorities grappled with how to enforce the restrictions, federal experts said yesterday that in Maryland and three other Northeastern states, the past four months were the driest in the 105 years that records have been kept.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that from April through July, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island got less rain than in any previous year.
For the Northeast as a whole, 1999 has been the second-driest season ever, after 1965. President Clinton, speaking to reporters outside the White House before departing for Arkansas, said he is creating a task force to cope with what he called "the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who received some criticism when he imposed statewide water restrictions Wednesday, issued a statement declaring that the federal data "confirmed everything I have seen as I have traveled the state over the past month."
"This is clearly the drought of the century for Maryland," he said.
His order, in part, bans Marylanders from watering lawns, filling swimming pools in most cases and washing their cars except at commercial carwashes that recycle most of their water.
Water use is down
While water use can vary significantly from day to day, there is evidence that the water-saving rules are having an impact. The cooler temperatures in recent days might also have played a role.
In Baltimore and its suburbs, the city water system's 1.8 million customers used 343 million gallons July 28, the day before the governor declared a drought emergency. By Thursday of this week, the day after Glendening ordered the water restrictions, use fell to 257 million gallons.
Meanwhile, the hunt for illicit waterers, and the confusion over what to do with them once found, went on.
Howard County police dispatched patrol cars to issue warnings in response to 14 reported violations, mostly residents watering their lawns. Raquel Sanudo, Howard's chief administrative officer, said some citizens were becoming water sleuths.
"Someone observed four large trucks filling up at a fire hydrant," Sanudo said. "We have no reason to believe it was a violation, but we're following up to find out."
A spokeswoman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger said police were handing over complaints to code enforcement officers.
"The goal here is not to collect fines or put people behind bars," spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. "We did not want to make this a heavy-handed policing effort."
In Baltimore, police lieutenants were passing out water restriction guidelines to every officer, along with citations pre-printed with the governor's order and the maximum penalties: a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
Warnings are preferred, Lt. Laurie A. Zuromski told a shift of Northeastern District officers yesterday. But, she added: "If you do encounter someone who refuses to comply or is doing something very blatant, you are compelled to issue a criminal citation."
Officer Soukaseum then hit the streets.
On Thursday, he had stopped a man from washing his car and woman at a church from filling a kiddie pool. "I felt bad for the kids, but I had a duty to stop them," he said.
Yesterday, he scoured back alleys and small streets in several Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods. He slowed at every green garden hose seen snaking through front yards. He questioned a woman pulling weeds about water use.
He came up dry until midmorning -- when he spotted Curran with a hose on his front lawn on Walther Avenue. "I don't think you can use a hose at all," Soukaseum told him.
The encounter highlighted how differently the restrictions can be interpreted. Curran said he was watering a flower garden, which is allowed. The officer pointed out that much of the water got onto the lawn, which is strictly forbidden.
Turn in your neighbors
It was tougher up in Mount Airy.