Rites of spring

Drought: Recent rain is too scant to prevent mandatory conservation in central Maryland.

March 16, 2002

FOR MOST of us, mandatory water restrictions will accompany the arrival of spring.

Procrastinators can rejoice: Just as thoughts turn to putting in the garden and hosing down the deck, water consumption limits are looming.

For everyone else, this will mark the first test of a water emergency plan adopted by the state following its clumsy response to the 1999 drought, which was then Maryland's worst in 70 years.

Back then, Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered blanket limits on water use, without regard to the differing needs and water supplies of the state's regions.

Water-dependent industries claimed they were unduly penalized; some businesses received exceptions, while others howled. Many homeowners conserved, while self-appointed whistleblowers outed water-wasters; some police agencies ignored it, while others wrote citations and warnings. There was a drought of forethought and good sense that long, hot summer.

Now we're emerging from an unseasonably dry winter. Recent storms delivered a half inch here or there, but winter precipitation remains as much as 12 inches below normal in many areas. At this point, "it would take the equivalent of a hurricane" to sate Maryland's thirst, making restrictions prudent, said a National Weather Service spokesman.

This time, the state says it is prepared: Many regions already are conserving. In coming days, Baltimore and several central counties will face mandatory limits devised after 1999 by a task force representing water and health agencies, farms and nurseries, the golf and car wash industries and other affected groups. Proposed bans and exceptions already are in place, and need only minor adjustment for current conditions, officials say.

If Maryland officials have learned a management lesson since 1999, the sacrifices they soon will ask of civic-minded businesses and homeowners will be easier to swallow: Rationed water tastes better with a slice of fairness.

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