State declares drought watch

Residents of 15 Md. counties are asked to conserve water

October 06, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

Falling groundwater levels and scant stream flow brought on by months of scarce rain led Maryland officials to announce a "drought watch" for 15 central and eastern counties yesterday, calling on residents there to save water whenever possible.

"There is a need to be concerned, and to look at water conservation, and to see how each individual in the state can help in conserving water," said Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The watch is the first, voluntary stage of a state plan that could lead to mandatory restrictions on water consumption if the drought persists. It covers all or parts of 15 counties: Baltimore County as well as Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties and all those on the Eastern Shore.

But Maryland's biggest population centers, served by reservoirs owned by Baltimore City and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, are unaffected by the watch. Their supplies were deemed "adequate."

In less fortunate areas, underground aquifers supplying many communities and individual homes are beginning to feel the pinch. Some monitoring wells in Central Maryland reached record lows last month, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A number of towns, including Westminster, Manchester and Mount Airy in Carroll County, are on mandatory water curbs imposed during the summer.

The weather forecast holds little immediate hope, with no more than a chance for showers by the middle of next week.

Baltimore has had no measurable rain at the airport since Sept. 15. That's 20 consecutive days without rain. The record is 32 days without rain, a dry patch that ended Oct. 31, 1963. That October remains the only month on record here with no measurable precipitation.

It's already too late for major crops. Lawns, trees and shrubs, too, are badly parched, but residents served by city water can water them - for now.

Baltimore officials described the city's three reservoirs yesterday as being "in good shape." Even so, they stood at their lowest levels since recovering from the record-breaking drought of 2001-2002, according to Ralph Cullison, chief of environmental services at the city Department of Public Works.

On Monday, the Liberty, Prettyboy and Loch Raven reservoirs were at 75 percent of capacity, with about 57 billion gallons on hand. "We have a little over 200 days of storage ... plenty of time for it to begin to rain again," Cullison said.

In 1999 and 2002, when supplies fell to 55 percent and 58 percent, respectively, the city drew water from the Susquehanna River to stretch out its supplies. "The earliest we would consider [tapping the Susquehanna] is at least a month, a month and a half away," Cullison said.

The drought is not limited to Maryland, however, and the Susquehanna itself is running at only 40 percent of normal flow, said Susan Obleski, spokeswoman for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

"The city has notified us that they're starting to test their pumps," she said. But if the drought persists, Baltimore might find it can't get all it wants.

Obleski said the city is permitted to draw up to 137 million gallons a day when the river is high. But when the flow in the lower river drops below 3,500 cubic feet per second, the city's allowance drops to 64 million gallons a day over 30 days. The current flow is about 3,900 cubic feet per second, she said, and the drought in Pennsylvania is worsening.

In Carroll County, bans on outdoor water use will remain in effect in Westminster and Manchester until rain recharges the municipal water supplies, local officials said. Cranberry Reservoir stood at 16 feet recently and must rise to 24.3 feet before restrictions are lifted, said Jeff Glass, public works director.

If it falls to 10 feet, water would be trucked in from the Medford Quarry, seven miles away, Glass said. That last happened during the 2002 drought.

Mount Airy's mandatory sprinkler ban was lifted Sept. 15 after water use was cut by more than 100,000 gallons below the 855,000 gallons the state permits the town to withdraw daily, Mayor Frank M. Johnson said. Usage has remained about 700,000 gallons per day, town officials said, possibly a result of a Sept. 2 fire that shuttered seven downtown businesses, including two restaurants.

In Harford County late this summer, low flows in streams that supply water to Bel Air, Aberdeen and the Edgewood Arsenal forced those areas onto Harford County's water system. That added about 3 million gallons to the system's daily demand, but usage has diminished since the summer peak, officials said.

"Right now we are fine, with adequate sources, and able to meet demand," said Joel Caudill, deputy director of Harford's Public Works Department. "But if we have deficit rainfall throughout winter into spring, we will definitely be in drought mode."

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