Some gallons of prevention

December 14, 2007

Baltimore's decision to begin tapping the Susquehanna River on Tuesday to head off a potential shortage of drinking water next spring illustrates that planning ahead has become crucial in water management.

Thanks to such planning by earlier generations, the Baltimore metropolitan area is served by three sizable reservoirs that are the envy of other Maryland cities, which wouldn't be allowed to build one today.

And yet in periods of drizzly drought such as these, the reservoirs are not being replenished quickly enough with rainwater to ensure they will have adequate supplies when warmer weather brings higher demand. A timely tap-in to the nearby Susquehanna, drawing about 50 million gallons a day from a river that's running higher than normal, can avoid more drastic action later when the river water might require more extensive treatment to improve its taste.

This seemingly mundane exercise holds some lessons for Baltimore's neighbors in Carroll, Harford and Cecil counties, where the clash between drinking water and development is under way.

Damming rivers to create reservoirs is now considered too destructive to wildlife. New development will have to depend on water that can be drawn from underground aquifers, which also dry up during droughts.

The current drought is being blamed on a La Ni?a cycle in the Pacific Ocean, but global warming is sure to increase the frequency of dry spells. Maryland counties and cities should factor the scarcity of water into their zoning plans.

Further, water conservation must become a habit. As part of the deal to tap temporarily into the Susquehanna, Baltimore officials agreed to voluntarily reduce water use by 5 percent. That requires no big sacrifices: shorter showers, fuller washing machines, no running water while shaving or brushing teeth. But broader steps can be taken as well, not only to conserve freshwater but also to keep it from picking up pollutants and washing into the Chesapeake Bay. Green roofs can collect rainwater in barrels and plant beds. Cooking and bathing water can be reused to water the garden. Water-hungry lawns can be replaced with foliage that holds moisture longer.

In announcing the river tap, the acting public works director, Shirley A. Williams, assured city residents: "This is by no means a water emergency."

But that's because the city is planning ahead. It's a good model to follow.

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