Parched city eyes river for reprieve

Baltimore to draw from Susquehanna

conservation urged

December 12, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN REPORTER

This week's drizzle and fog notwithstanding, a continuing scarcity of rain in Maryland has spurred Baltimore water authorities to order that 50 million gallons be drawn daily from the Susquehanna River to supplement ebbing supplies in the city's three reservoirs.

Acting Public Works Director Shirley A. Williams also called for water conservation, asking 1.8 million water customers in the city and surrounding counties to voluntarily cut their water consumption by 5 percent.

That might mean shortening showers by a minute or two, waiting for full loads before using the washer and dishwasher, and closing the tap while shaving or brushing teeth.

"What drought?" you may ask. It feels like something's been dripping on us all month. But all this drizzle, snow and fog - on every day this month but two - has produced barely an inch of water. It hasn't refilled the reservoirs or revived the wells.

So, the pumps on the Susquehanna at Deer Creek will be switched on next Tuesday, the first time since 2002. River water will be blended at the Montebello Treatment Plant with the flow from Loch Raven Reservoir. Most of the blend will end up in the system's eastern sections.

Although "some people say they can notice a slight taste change" when the river is tapped, city public works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher said, any impact on taste should be minimal.

"The Susquehanna is running above-average now and the water quality is good," Kocher said.

The city's plea for reduced consumption is required under Baltimore's agreement with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, whenever the city taps the river to supplement its own supplies.

"This is by no means a water emergency," Williams said. "We are basically conserving some of our reservoir water and using the Susquehanna while the river is running high. ... By doing this we hope to avoid shortages come warm weather, and all citizens can help by using water wisely."

Long-term forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration call for continued dry-to-average precipitation rates through March. A continuing drought could mean summertime cuts in the city's access to the river, and lower water quality.

Baltimore city water officials hope to avoid that. Low water in the Susquehanna in 2002 was blamed for a spike in complaints of an "earthy" or "musty" smell to the tap water. The city subsequently reduced the pump rates and relied more on the reservoirs.

Rainfall at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is running about 7.5 inches below normal for the year, according to National Weather Service data through Dec. 10. Since May, BWI has received just 68 percent of average precipitation, with a surplus only in October.

Last week, more than 63 percent of Maryland remained in moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor.

Since June 7, 2007, the water stored in the city's three reservoirs has slipped from 100 percent of capacity to less than 66 percent this week. And the falloff continues, Kocher said.

In 2002 and 1999, water supplies in the reservoirs fell to 60 percent of capacity before authorities switched on their river pumps. The record low was reached in early autumn 2002 - less than 42 percent.

Scant rainfall in Maryland this year led officials in October to declare a "drought watch" in 15 central and eastern counties. The watch, which excluded the urban water systems, called on residents to save water wherever possible.

Gov. Martin O'Malley requested and received a federal drought disaster declaration this summer, making farmers and some related businesses eligible for low-cost loans and other benefits.

What farmers, city water customers, and Marylanders on well water could use is a wet, snowy winter.

Forecasters say that doesn't appear to be in the cards. A continuing La Nina cycle - unusually cool surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean - is expected to keep the winter mostly mild, with no greater-than-average precipitation.

The short-term forecast, on the other hand, does offer a little hope.

Forecasters are watching the development of a storm that could become a significant snow-maker in the Northeast this weekend.

Computer models were in disagreement yesterday, but some suggested a classic nor'easter. It could gather up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, strengthen off the Virginia coast and drop copious precipitation into cold air over the Mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast late Saturday and into Sunday.

A more northerly track would leave the Baltimore-Washington area in a region of rain or mixed precipitation.

From a snow-lover's point of view, the latter scenario might be a disappointment. But in the face of the drought and waning water supplies, either outcome - rain or snow - would be welcome.

"Let's hope for a blizzard, just over the watershed and the reservoirs up there, and hope it stays off the roads," Kocher said.

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