River water flows to city

Susquehanna called upon to ease burden on region's reservoirs

Water use declining

Rules being `tweaked' and enforcement is a moving target

August 10, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Baltimore area residents began drinking water from the Susquehanna River yesterday, easing the demand on the region's rain-starved reservoirs.

Meanwhile, Maryland officials carved out a few new exceptions to the state's water-use restrictions, yielding to complaints from owners of newly sodded lawns and athletic directors worried about injuries on rock-hard fields.

Even so, the curbs continued to pinch businesses such as nurseries and landscapers, who said flower and plant sales already hurt by the drought have suffered more since the governor clamped down on water use last week.

And with police assigned to enforce rules not yet firmly established, there were the inevitable miscues. One Howard County woman said she was startled from sleep by a flashlight-wielding officer after a neighbor turned her in -- incorrectly, it turns out -- for rinsing off her boat.

The city's Department of Public Works reported no problems as it opened the tap on the 38-mile pipeline from the Susquehanna for the first time since 1993. The flow was gradually blended at the city's Montebello filtration plant with water drawn from Loch Raven Reservoir.

The river supply, which was expected to grow to 50 million gallons daily by today, came as the area's consumption fell to its lowest level of the summer, a drop credited to conservation and cooler weather.

The system's 1.8 million customers used 240 million gallons Sunday, down 16 percent since statewide curbs began Wednesday.

While the ban on watering grass remains generally in full force, state officials decided it would be an "extraordinary hardship" to forbid watering a new lawn. Newly seeded or sodded grass is more likely to die without water than established lawns, which normally can rebound from dry spells.

"People spent hundreds or thousands of dollars [on new lawns] and we wanted to give them a break," explained Susan Woods, spokeswoman for the state Department of the Environment.

The watering must be done between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. and can only be done with buckets, cans or a hand-held hose, she noted. The lawns must have been put in after July 1 but before Gov. Parris N. Glendening's executive order last Wednesday.

Officials also decided to permit watering of all athletic fields, citing safety concerns. The Maryland Stadium Authority secured state approval last week to keep Oriole Park and the Ravens stadium green, but other ball fields had been covered by the ban.

The governor's decision to relent was a relief to high school coaches and athletic directors, though they were told to reduce normal watering by 50 percent.

"We were anticipating a lot more sprained ankles and possibly more broken bones from hard falls, because by the end of September the ground would have been like concrete," said Donald Disney, Howard County's coordinator of athletics.

"Now, the fields won't be as lush as they normally would be, but they should be green and soft enough to be safe for our athletes."

Safety likewise figured in the state's decision to let supermarkets hose down their loading docks. Easing the ban on spraying outdoor paved surfaces will allow them to wash off broken produce, reducing flies and the risk that someone might slip on the mess.

"This is our first experience with this," said Woods. "We're trying to be fair and realistic. We're tweaking where we need to tweak."

Confusion continued over some of the restrictions, leading to unpleasant situations as local authorities tried to enforce them.

Marylee Boone of Clarksville said she was awakened after midnight yesterday by a Howard County policeman, who told her a neighbor had reported she was washing her boat.

"I woke from a sound sleep," she said. "I was shaking so badly I thought I was going to have a heart attack."

Her alleged offense is no offense at all. Boone and her son rinsed their motorboat Sunday night to remove potentially corrosive salt residue after spending the day on the Chesapeake Bay.

"There is no restriction [on washing boats,]" acknowledged J. L. Hearn, the environment department's director of water management. "It's a pretty tough task to make sure everyone, including every single law enforcement officer in the state, gets the information."

Garden stores and nurseries reported slumping sales as customers shied away from buying flowers and plants.

"Sales are down drastically," said Betty Hemphill, owner of Hemphill's Water Gardens in Fallston. The drought has depressed people's interest in gardening so much that the firm launched its traditional end-of-summer sale in June, she said.

Garland Williams, owner of Garland's Garden Center in Catonsville, said "People are afraid," fearing in part that they might run afoul of the watering restrictions and also that whatever they plant now might die.

"Everyone's hoping when the rain comes, they can go back out and fix up any permanent damage as well as tweak stuff," he said. He said that with a little ingenuity and common sense, gardeners can ensure survival of their favorite plants and trees.

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