Water rules precipitate new levels of ingenuity

Some cleverly evade limits, others cleverly find ways to conserve

August 11, 1999|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

Maybe it was the way the sunlight was glistening on the sheen of the Mercedes-Benz that tipped off the neighbors. But -- whatever it was -- when police arrived at a palatial home in Rockville early this week, the car's owner shared with them his ingenious way of eluding the state's water restrictions.

He had washed his lime green Mercedes with bottled water.

"I started giggling, and I commended him for not using his hose," said Sgt. J. P. Cowell, of the Rockville Police Department.

"He was all sweaty, and I told him to drink some of the water so he wouldn't pass out from heatstroke."

Yesterday, state Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida, chairwoman of the governor's drought task force, said there is no reason to ease curbs on lawn watering and car washing.

The drought remains a crisis, she said, until heavy rains replenish depleted streams, reservoirs and underground aquifers.

With no end in sight, ingenious Marylanders are scurrying to reinterpret the guidelines on water use.

Their creativity -- and the zeal with which they are pursuing ways around the rules -- has impressed and alarmed some law enforcement officials.

"These people have too much free time" was the attitude of many of those enforcing drought regulations around the state yesterday.

The state's drought hot line has been getting 200 calls an hour this week -- including one from a 6-year-old asking whether the water-use curbs mean he no longer has to take a bath.

In Frederick County, the police department has been outmaneuvered by the "bathtub lady" and the "laundry man" -- two people who are "technically" observing the ban.

One woman began taking baths several times a day and bringing the water -- by bucket -- out to water her flowers and trees, said Cpl. Rich Hetherington.

But police were most impressed by a man desperate to reclaim the lustrous shine of his automobile.

He hooked up his washing machine to a bucket. When it filled with soapy water from his laundry, he dashed to the driveway to wash his car. Then he sprinted back to the house in time to retrieve the clean water from the rinse cycle and douse his car again.

All perfectly legal.

At the other end of the drought spectrum are the citizens who are scrambling to save every single drop, according to officials around the state. They use an alarm clock to time their showers and don't flush the toilet as often as they normally do.

At the 54th annual Howard County Fair, organizers are recycling melted ice. Vendors and dining hall patrons have been asked to recycle ice left over from fountain drinks.

The leftovers are placed in a bucket, said fair association President Mitchell Day, and used to water flowers at the fairground. They empty that bucket about six times a day, he said.

Police overtime pay is scarce statewide, so officers are enforcing drought regulations while trying to fight crime.

"It is an additional burden on manpower we do not have," said Lt. Stuart Murray of the Worcester County Police Department.

Calls are pouring in to law enforcement agencies from do-gooder neighbors reporting on anyone brandishing a hose. Officials in Queen Anne's County said they received a call from "a concerned neighbor" wondering whether it was legal for her neighbor to collect the condensation that drips off her air conditioner and sprinkle the water on her plants.

Police officers are also contending with a bevy of nosy neighbors bent on stirring up trouble for those they do not get along with. One couple on the Eastern shore reported a neighbor for watering the grass around a flower garden -- and indignantly added that they also had not been invited to the neighbor's Christmas party.

"It is tricky because it is neighbors -- who sometimes do not like each other," said Fred Shiflett, Anne Arundel County deputy sheriff.

"Most of the time you can work it out with them. But 10 percent of those are hardheads that want to push the issue because they cannot get along with people."

Things have been more civil in the wealthy enclave of Chevy Chase, which borders Washington, D.C.

"In this municipality of 715 residents, we know the residents by first name and have a well-educated, well-informed residents basis," said Jeffrey Biddle, of the Chevy Chase Police Department.

Most of the warnings issued have been to non-English-speaking nannies and maids unaware of the regulations. Officials also have fielded phone calls from country clubs concerned about keeping their tennis courts clean, said Andrea Jolly, the director of Montgomery County's drought hot line.

Jolly said she has received several calls from Montgomery County residents warning the police that they do not get along with their neighbors and were worried they might be falsely reported.

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