Drought testing towns' resources

Dozen communities in Md. already coping with mandatory curbs

March 18, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

MOUNT SAVAGE - Volunteer firefighters from all around this Allegany County mountain town returned last weekend to a chore they have repeated every Saturday since late October.

All Saturday morning, they filled their tanker trucks with water from hydrants in nearby Corriganville and, one after the other, made the five-mile uphill drive back to Mount Savage.

There, on a hillside above the town, they pumped their loads through 500 feet of fire hose, across a cow pasture into a 115,000-gallon cistern. The concrete tank provides water to 34 homes, two businesses and a church with a day care center.

Months before the rest of Maryland became aware of what is becoming the most serious drought in the region since the 1930s, the wells and springs that feed the Bald Knob section of Mount Savage's water system dried up.

The town is one of at least a dozen Maryland communities living under the kinds of mandatory curbs on water consumption that Gov. Parris N. Glendening is preparing to impose on most of Central Maryland, as early as today.

"Welcome to my nightmare," said Nancy Hausrath.

She is an environmental technician with the city of Cumberland. It is Cumberland's water that Mount Savage is taking from the hydrants in Corriganville. But Hausrath has bigger worries.

Cumberland's reservoirs in Pennsylvania are drying up, and its 50,000 water consumers have been living with curbs for more than a month. That's helping, Hausrath said. But even with the present restrictions, if it doesn't start raining long and hard, Cumberland will run out of water by mid- to late June.

The state was at least dampened by rain yesterday - nearly two-tenths of an inch in the Baltimore area about a quarter of an inch in parts of Western Maryland - and light rain was expected to continue through Wednesday.

"It's certainly not a drought buster, but it certainly helps," said Jim Wiesmueller, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va. "At least it's providing some surface moisture. That's a big help for the farmers."

With reservoirs falling, wells and springs failing in many communities, and rainfall since September more than a foot below normal, Glendening has said he intends to declare a drought emergency. He will extend mandatory restrictions on water use to Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Harford and Howard counties, and parts of Montgomery and northern Anne Arundel counties. The rest of the state is under either a drought watch or warning, with voluntary curbs on water use. Baltimore City, though not required to curb water use, plans to go along.

Cumberland, while outside the governor's drought emergency zone, is the largest Maryland community forced by shortages to impose water restrictions.

Hausrath stood Friday afternoon on the cracked, dusty slope of what was once the bottom of Lake Koon in Bedford County, Pa., just north of Cumberland. The lake - a record 29 feet below capacity - feeds into Lake Gordon, which is the primary source of water for Cumberland and nearby communities in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"We have three weeks of attainable water in Koon," she said. There's enough in Lake Gordon for 90 more days.

Just up the lake, and 25 feet below the bottom of a boat ramp, Robert Nelson, 65, fished Friday for bluegills, as he has done since the 1940s.

He had two fish in his bucket, but the condition of the reservoir worried him. "Man, it's bad," he said. "I've never seen it like this before." The well in his nearby cabin is drying up.

Cumberland's water customers were asked in early December to make voluntary cuts in water use. The restrictions became mandatory Feb. 15, after Pennsylvania declared a drought emergency in Bedford County.

Hausrath gave the city's 18 biggest water customers 30 days to submit a plan for cutting consumption by 10 percent or face unspecified penalties from the city. One hundred smaller commercial users will soon receive similar letters.

At Memorial and Sacred Heart hospitals in Cumberland, that means finding ways to save 17,000 gallons a day.

Kevin Turley, vice president for systems facilities at the Western Maryland Health System, the hospitals' parent company, said they will return to using more disposable bed pads, isolation gowns and dishware to cut back on washing.

"We went to reusables to save money four years ago," Turley said. "It will cost us more, but it's pretty easy to do without an adverse impact on patient care."

Showers for staff are out, except in emergencies. And the routine topping-off of patients' water pitchers is finished.

South of the city, the 1,714 inmates at the state's Western Correctional Institution are doing their part, too.

Like the hospitals, the prison must cut its water consumption by 10 percent, or about 20,000 gallons a day.

Since March 7, inmates who once could shower as needed have been cut back to one six-minute shower every other day, unless their jobs - in food service or the prison hospital - make hygiene more critical.

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