Water wasters, beware: Others ready to snitch

Officials already fielding complaints about those who violate restrictions

April 23, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

In Harford County, a man reported his neighbor for lawn sprinkling and car washing. In Frederick City, a resident wanted a fast-food restaurant flagged for hosing down the windows.

Another Frederick resident went ballistic over her neighbor who was spotted giving his car a quick wash at the crack of dawn one Saturday while the rest of the block slept.

So it goes in the new world of Central Maryland water-use restrictions, where tattling is permitted - even encouraged - and residents are the first line of defense. After all, there are no water police.

"We rely on you guys to rat on each other," said Marc Stachowski, Frederick's drought coordinator.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a drought emergency April 5 covering all of Carroll, Cecil, Frederick and Harford counties and portions of Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties. Banned were watering the lawn; washing the car, truck or boat at home; and running fountains that don't recycle water.

Glendening left enforcement up to counties and municipalities, which are largely relying on citizens to police themselves and each other.

It's a system that has roused residents' sense of civic duty while giving new meaning to a "neighborhood watch."

In the complaints received to date, state and community leaders say most callers are concerned about conserving a limited resource. At the same time, they say, many are eager to ensure that their neighbors aren't using more than their fair share.

Edith O. Eader, a legal secretary living in Frederick, said she was driven both by anger and public duty when she wrote a letter to the local newspaper describing how she saw "a certain party washing his car about 6:30 a.m." on a recent Saturday.

In an interview, Eader, 57, said she's convinced that the neighbor intentionally chose a time of day when others on the street were sleeping.

Since Glendening declared the drought crisis, Eader has been dumping "gray water" from her washing machine onto her garden. She recently bought a 60-gallon container to catch and recycle rain water.

She said her black Mustang has at times turned dark green from pollen because she's resisting the urge to scrub it down (commercial car washes are permitted).

"I was raised on a farm, and you learned how to re-use and conserve," Eader said. "All the things I'm trying to do, and he's washing his car at 6:30 in the morning so no one will see him. I was mad!"

But Eader said she decided against reporting her neighbor to the city, which first issues a warning, followed by a $25 fine for a first offense. "I don't like neighbors turning on neighbors," she said.

There was no such hesitation on the part of the anonymous Harford County man who called the state's drought information line (1-877-437-6844) "to say his neighbor across the street has been watering the lawn and washing the car," said Saeid Kasraei, a state Department of the Environment water expert.

The caller's point was that "if someone gets out of the pack, it impacts the effort of everyone," said Kasraei, who referred the complaint to county officials.

In Frederick, city officials have issued a dozen warnings involving car washing, house washing, window washing, lawn watering and other violations.

All of the warnings stemmed from citizen complaints. "It's like Lord of the Flies," joked Stachowski, referring to the disturbing book and movies about schoolboys' vigilante justice.

The complaint about the burger joint was resolved when a code enforcer drove out and talked to the restaurant's manager. "They're not allowed to wash the pavement or the windows. They can use Windex for the windows," said code enforcer Mike Blank.

No official count is kept of complaints received by local governments in the drought region. Kasraei said the volume of calls to the state hot line hasn't approached that of 1999, when statewide restrictions were credited with reducing water use by 15 percent to 20 percent.

"We got about 10,000 calls in two weeks in 1999," Kasraei said. The calls were a mixture of questions, comments and complaints.

This year, many of the roughly 800 calls have been queries from those trying to understand the rules, which contain exceptions that can be confusing.

For example, sprinkler systems are permitted to help along newly seeded areas or to maintain athletic fields or golf courses with a water conservation plan.

Gardens can be watered with a watering can or a hose, but not with a sprinkler. Collected rainwater or bottled water can be used to water plants, but not to wash the car.

In Harford County, scout troops have wondered whether they can still stage benefit car washes. They were told to apply for a variance from the county drought coordinator.

The county has also tried to clear up confusion over whether residents are subject to the limits even if they are not connected to the public water system.

"My mom is on a well and she's never considered the water restrictions to be anything she has to worry about," said Merrie Street, director of government and community relations.

But Street said her mother - and the rest of the county - need to know that well users are under the same rules as everyone else.

In Carroll County, Public Works Director Doug Myers said he's developed a standard response to recent questions about water: "If you have to ask, don't do it."

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