October 24, 2007

Mother Nature has a very effective method of getting attention. Right now, she's telling Maryland and its neighbors in the drought-baked Southeast to stop taking water for granted.

It's not a new message, but one that tends to be forgotten as soon as rainfall resumes and reservoir levels rebound.

So, she's practically screaming now: No new development should be approved without ensuring that it can be served by an adequate water supply. That's a tough standard to meet in some communities desperate to expand their tax base, but Maryland still has a chance to avoid the harsh consequences of ignoring it.

Consider the cautionary tale coming out of Atlanta this week. Decades of unbridled growth with no consideration of how it might affect future water supplies has turned this summer's record dry spell into a full-scale emergency - threatening both residential and industrial water.

Georgia's answer, in part, has been to blame the federal government for releasing water from reserves at Lake Lanier to protect endangered species downstream. But that's simply squabbling over a scarce resource, like the longtime water wars in the West.

A better answer is to respect and protect the resource through wise management and conservation, practiced as an individual responsibility as well as government policy.

The General Assembly passed a law last year requiring local governments to file a water resources plan with the state as part of their land-use planning. But that was only a small step toward a broader effort that will require detailed studies of Maryland's water supplies, regional coordination on growth and tough enforcement tools.

Short-term water restrictions are not yet in place in many parts of Maryland - though they may be soon as the second-driest May-to-September in more than a century appears likely to stretch into next year. Meanwhile, Marylanders can ease the burden on overtaxed aquifers by conserving water on their own, through steps such as reusing "gray water" from laundry to water the garden.

The towns and cities of Central Maryland in the Piedmont region are more water-challenged than other parts of the state. Experts say a drought disaster can be avoided even there, though, if Marylanders are shrewd enough to heed this obvious warning.

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