Saying that drought has imperiled Baltimore's stored water supply, public works officials are preparing to tap the Susquehanna River next week to save water in the three reservoirs that serve 1.8 million area residents.
Public Works Director George L. Winfield urged residents served by city water to conserve voluntarily to stave off harsh water-use restrictions that might be imposed in spring if there is no significant rainfall.
"The more we can do now, the better off we'll be come spring," Winfield said yesterday. "If nothing changes by the spring of the year then we may be imposing water restrictions."
Autumn 2001 was the third-driest in the region since 1871.
The past six months have produced less than two-thirds of the usual rainfall at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Less than 7 inches has fallen since Sept. 1 - more than 8 inches below normal.
The prospects for more abundant rain in the coming months are, well, cloudy. Accuweather Inc., a large commercial weather service, has forecast above-normal precipitation for the Middle Atlantic states over the next two months.
The National Weather Service, however, predicts equal chances of above-normal or below-normal rainfall through April.
Eighteen Maryland counties have been under a drought watch since fall. The state is considering the announcement of a drought "warning," calling for more stringent conservation and reductions of 10 percent to 15 percent in consumption.
The Susquehanna River basin has been hit hard by the drought. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey show the river running at 10,600 cubic feet per second at Conowingo - just 36 percent of its normal flow for this time of year.
At midnight Tuesday, the city will begin to pump 50 million gallons a day from the river. Within a week it will increase the rate to 100 million gallons daily.
This will be the 10th time the city has drawn a significant amount of water from the Susquehanna since the pipeline was completed in 1966.
The last time the city tapped the river, in 1999, many customers complained about the taste. That's because the Susquehanna's iron levels are almost double that of the Loch Raven Reservoir, and its sulfur levels are four times higher.
Winfield said he did not foresee a "taste problem" this time because the river is higher than it was in 1999, and the water quality is better. Officials said it should cost less to treat than in 1999. It will be blended with higher-quality reservoir water at the Montebello filtration plant.
Baltimore's regional customers use an average of 254 million gallons a day in winter. That can rise to 330 million a day in summer.
Because of last fall's drought, water levels at the Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs have dropped to 61 percent of capacity, an all-time winter low, officials said.
In January 1999, before a summer drought that triggered statewide mandatory water restrictions, the city's reservoirs were at 71 percent capacity. The average capacity in winter is 82 percent.
The 1999 drought was the last time the city used the 38-mile underground pipe to tap into the Susquehanna.
At the time, then-city Public Works Director George G. Balog initially resisted pressure from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to use water from the Susquehanna, arguing that the city had enough water in its reservoirs to last 60 days.
In August 1999, Glendening banned Marylanders from watering lawns, filling swimming pools in most cases and washing their cars except at commercial carwashes that recycle most of their water.
Fearful the dry weather will continue, Winfield said he wants to avoid such dire measures. The move to tap the Susquehanna is precautionary, he said, allowing more water to remain in the reservoirs.
"We are hoping that by doing this we will avoid having to impose water restrictions later on in the year," he said.
Winfield suggested that residents fix any leaking pipes in their homes, run the dishwasher or washing machine only when full, and avoid long showers.
Stream flows are extremely low all across Maryland. Water-use restrictions have been in effect since Aug. 9 in Taneytown, and since Nov. 13 in Westminster.
Record low levels for the date were being set yesterday at stations on Winters Run and Deer Creek, in Harford County; on the Pocomoke in Wicomico, and on Conococheague Creek in Washington County.
In fact, with few exceptions, streams east of the Appalachians from Virginia north to New York state were flowing at less than 20 percent of normal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
"There's a lot of evidence we really have never recovered from the drought of 1999," said USGS hydrologist Gary Fisher. "Water levels have been consistently low since 1999, with some periods of recovery, but with a continuing lack of rainfall."
If rainfall doesn't return to normal on the state's farms, said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, "We could be into some real problems by the first of April."
Without at least normal rainfall in the next two months to recharge soil moisture and the underlying water table, he said, farmers will be reluctant to plant certain crops in the spring, or to risk as much acreage as they might otherwise.
Farmers endured four or five drought years during the 1990s, including the 1999 drought, which was rated the worst in at least 70 years.
That was followed by a good season in 2000. But financially, Evans said, "It takes three good years to make up for a bad year."
The repeated droughts have pushed more of the state's fruit and vegetable growers to irrigation, he said. And their access to ground water has been hampered by suburban sprawl.
"Your water table keeps dropping in huge areas of Maryland because so many people are punching wells" for new homes, Evans said.