State issues `drought warning' for area

Voluntary cutbacks urged for 15 counties

January 25, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Maryland's deepening drought prompted state environmental authorities to issue a "drought warning" yesterday for 15 counties in Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

The declaration asks residents, businesses and industry to voluntarily curb nonessential water use, and requires public water systems to take steps to reduce consumption.

The state's action occurred one day after Baltimore announced it will begin drawing water from the Susquehanna River next week to conserve dwindling supplies in its reservoirs.

In Annapolis, lawmakers were drafting legislation requiring public water systems to develop and implement water conservation plans.

"There is clearly a growing strain on our water resources," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat. "We're asking communities to develop plans that work for them. But they have to come up with some kind of plan and show the state they're paying attention to this issue."

Although parts of the state received a quarter- to a half-inch of rain yesterday, it was too little to make up for rainfall deficits of 4 inches to 9 inches built up over the past six months.

If the pattern continues, "we could be facing the same [situation] as the drought of 1999, which could lead to mandatory water restrictions," said Saeid Kasraei, water supply administrator for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "We are hopeful we can avoid that by voluntary water conservation right now."

The drought warnings issued yesterday cover Frederick, Carroll, Baltimore, Harford, Cecil, Howard, Montgomery, Kent, Queen Anne's, Caroline, Talbot, Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties. Communities in these counties served by the Baltimore City water system or the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commissions are exempt.

Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties remain under less serious drought watches.

Residents, businesses and industries in the warning areas are asked to curb nonessential water use. The MDE suggests people repair leaky plumbing; install water-efficient faucets and showerheads; shorten showers; shut off the water while shaving or brushing teeth; and run dishwashers and clothes washers only when they're full.

Water suppliers must implement conservation measures, discontinue flushing water lines and hydrants, and urge their industrial users to reduce consumption.

If measures of rainfall, ground water, stream flow and reservoir levels get much worse, Kasraei said, a drought emergency would be declared, triggering mandatory water restrictions.

All regions of the state are at emergency levels for rainfall -- less than 60 percent of normal over the previous four months, Kasraei said. Parts of the Eastern Shore are at emergency levels for stream flow as well.

Baltimore's move to tap the Susquehanna River for up to 100 million gallons a day was the first under an agreement reached last year with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

The agreement, which ended an eight-year dispute over the city's rights to the river's water, allows Baltimore to draw up to 250 million gallons a day from the river. The commission can cut the city's withdrawals to 64 million gallons a day if the river's level falls too low.

In exchange, the city recognized the commission's authority over the river's resources.

"They did notify us beforehand," said commission spokeswoman Susan Obleski. "We were pleased to see the city has taken the advice to come to the Susquehanna River sooner than in the past, so their reservoirs won't be so drawn down. It's a way of better managing their own reservoir supplies."

The city is also working to repair leaks. More than 17 percent of the system's water is "unaccounted for," according to Deputy Public Works Director Shirley Williams. But no changes have been made in a rate structure that provides discounts to big users.

More foresighted water management is the goal of the Maryland Water Conservation Act being drafted in the General Assembly.

The legislation would require the state's larger water and wastewater systems to implement "best management practices" for water conservation before seeking state permits for new or increased draws from the state's rivers or ground water.

Such practices might include water audits to find and repair leaks; use of undrinkable water for irrigation systems; rate structure reforms to end volume discounts and encourage conservation; and outreach programs to help homeowners conserve water.

A water conservation bill passed the state Senate last year, but died in a House committee after counties, municipalities and small water systems raised concerns.

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