Water limits lifted for city

Fall rain and winter snow restored reservoirs' levels

Conservation urged by officials

Residents can wash cars for first time since August

March 21, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Remember the drought? Well, it's over.

On the day when winter turned to spring -- with flood warnings out and heavy rain washing away the last of February's snow -- Baltimore's public works chief ended mandatory restrictions yesterday on water consumption that had been imposed in August.

About 1.8 million water customers in the city and nearby suburbs may wash their cars at home again without worrying about the water police.

"I would like to thank our water customers for their efforts in conserving water during this long drought," said Public Works Director George L. Winfield. "It reminds all of us never to take for granted this most precious resource. Please, always use water wisely."

As he spoke, rainwater and snowmelt were gushing into the city's three reservoirs, lifting supplies 1 percent per day. They stood at a combined 89 percent of capacity yesterday.

It's the first time in 19 months the reservoirs have topped the monthly norm. And it's more than double the low of 41 percent reached in October.

Loch Raven Reservoir was overflowing its dam yesterday. Prettyboy was 90 percent full, and Liberty was at 83 percent of capacity.

"Keep in mind there is no guarantee the rains are going to keep going," said public works spokesman Kurt Kocher.

The meteorological drought, however, has been over for months.

Above-normal monthly rainfall resumed in October at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, with a surplus of more than 7 inches since then. The National Weather Service quit issuing its twice-monthly drought statements in early December.

With more than 3 inches of rain expected this week in some counties, flood warnings were issued yesterday for most of Maryland, including the Conowingo hydroelectric dam. Watches were in place for the Baltimore region.

Swollen by rain and snowmelt, the Susquehanna River was roaring yesterday through the Conowingo dam, which spans the river between Harford and Cecil counties.

Twelve floodgates were open, said Ben Armstrong, spokesman for Exelon Generation, which operates the dam. About 260,000 cubic feet of water passed through the gates each second, more than 2 1/2 times normal for the season.

"It's a high flow but it's nothing we haven't seen before," Armstrong said.

The utility may need to open as many as 20 gates to handle the flow, he said. When 14 are opened, U.S. 222 in Cecil County between Port Deposit and U.S. 1 usually floods.

The late drought was one of the most serious in Maryland since the 1930s.

Baltimore first asked its water customers to conserve voluntarily in January last year. Water levels in the city's three reservoirs had sunk to 61 percent of capacity after four months of scant rainfall, prompting water managers to begin tapping the Susquehanna River.

In April, Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed mandatory water restrictions on much of Central Maryland. But Baltimore's conservation effort remained voluntary until August. By then, reservoir supplies had dropped to 50 percent.

Public wells and reservoirs serving Cumberland, Frederick, Westminster and other Maryland communities threatened to run dry. Private wells also began failing.

Crops were devastated, and the governor sought a federal agricultural disaster declaration to aid farmers.

In late August, the governor tightened water conservation rules in Central Maryland and expanded them to the Eastern Shore.

By early October, the city's reservoirs had skidded to 41 percent of capacity, a record low. Prettyboy Reservoir became a weed garden, 84 percent empty.

But the rains returned that month. By Nov. 21, the city was comfortable enough with the rising water to shut down the pipe from the Susquehanna River. Consumers had used more than 30 billion gallons of the river's water in 10 months -- equal to 1 1/2 times the capacity of Loch Raven Reservoir.

Last month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lifted the last of the drought restrictions outside Baltimore's water system. And today, the city dropped the rest.

The vernal equinox arrived at 8 p.m. last night, officially ending one of Baltimore's worst winters. Some lowlights:

It was the area's eighth-coldest winter on record, and the coldest in a quarter-century. By contrast, last winter was the ninth-warmest.

There were only four days all winter that reached 55 degrees or more -- the fewest in almost 70 years. Last year, the area had 27 days that mild.

The demand for heating energy was 10 percent higher than normal, and 23 percent higher than last year at this time, according to the weather service.

January was the coldest since 1994, and February the coldest since 1979.

It was also the 10th-wettest winter on record in Baltimore -- three times wetter than last year.

But the big news was the snow. There were 17 days of snowfall, the most in nearly 70 years. It totaled 55.5 inches at BWI, the second-snowiest Baltimore winter since snow records began in 1883-1884.

The storm of Feb. 15-18 buried the airport in 28.2 inches of snow -- the most ever recorded in the city. It made February the snowiest month on record here, with more than 40 inches in all.

There were 31 days of snow cover at the airport this winter -- the most since 1960.

Now, April's nearly here. It's typically one of Maryland's best weather months -- daytime highs averaging in the mid-60s, and a shot at afternoons in the 80s.

Sun staff writer Lane Harvey Brown contributed to this article.

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