Thousands in Baltimore County try to cope without water

Electrical fire shuts down Towson Reservoir pumping station

  • BGE replaces wires that were burned in a fire on Hillen Road just east of Greenbrier Road, which caused a power outage to the water pumping station and left thousands of homes without water.
BGE replaces wires that were burned in a fire on Hillen Road just… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
April 08, 2010|By Liz F. Kay and Erica L. Green

Utility crews struggled to restore water service to tens of thousands of Baltimore County residents and businesses Wednesday night, even as officials warned that outages were expected to last through the night.

Crews will "hopefully get everyone restored overnight," said Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, which owns and maintains the water system for the city and county.

The problem, triggered by an electrical fire near a Towson pumping station, worsened during the day, as water tanks such as the one in Mays Chapel were depleted. Outages were reported from the city-county line to Sparks, Kocher said.

Once residents do have their water service restored, Kocher said, water from the faucet might be cloudy because of backed-up sediment, which he said is not harmful. He said residents should remove the faucet aerator, the small screen at the end of the faucet, and let the water run until it's clear.

He cautioned that even after water service is restored, customers should conserve to allow the system to return to normal levels. "The longer this goes on, the more water we've lost - that's more time it's going to take to fill up the tanks. We've got to build up the system now."

As water shortages spread Wednesday, over an area bounded by Lake Avenue to the south, Sparks to the north, Falls Road to the west and Old Harford Road to the east, homeowners and businesses struggled to cope.

Towson University canceled classes, and the county shut 18 schools. Bill Bateman's Bistro, on the edge of the university's campus, closed, and Souris' Saloon in the center of Towson switched to plastic plates and glasses to limit dishwashing while the water lasted.

Meanwhile, Towson's Lluminaire Salon used bottled water for shampoos - heating it in a coffee maker when needed. "Of course we're nervous - it isn't too much in this business we can do to conserve," said manager Wanda Butta. "We're taking it one client at a time."

The early-morning fire triggered outages by disabling the Towson Reservoir pumping station. The outages come about a month after a water main break left thousands of northwest Baltimore County residents without water for four days.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews took longer than expected to complete repairs to overhead and underground power lines. Early restoration estimates of 4 p.m. - later extended - were based on preliminary information and best-case scenarios, said BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy.

Power was restored at 6:15 p.m., and by around 7:30, crews were working to "prime the pumps" Kocher said, preparing to restore water service to the estimated 200,000 customers within the affected area.

As crews worked on the wires, businesses in Towson tried to adapt.

Owner Kathy Harden was working at Souris' Saloon on Wednesday morning but anticipated the possibility that county water tanks would run dry by the end of the day.

"We are conserving by using plastic plates and cups to cut down on the dishwasher," she said, adding that she would also serve water only upon request. She said the saloon - a popular spot for judges and lawyers at the nearby county courthouse, which also closed - would lose some business.

But she said, "We're going to stay open as long as we have water."

Employees of the Ridgely and Ferrens Marketplace saw a boom in its breakfast business.

"A lot of the Towson students got up and realized they didn't have school and came here for breakfast," said Ross Franck, a cashier at the market and deli. "We don't want to be nasty, but if we could have a water [shortage] every day, that'd be good."

Franck, who said the marketplace wasn't a "big water-intensive place anyway," planned to conserve by not opening its snowball stand and limiting the use of water to essentials like hand washing.

For some area businesses, the water shortage translated into a money shortage.

Tom Trinkle, co-owner of Bill Bateman's Bistro, estimated a $7,000 to $9,000 loss from having to close his York Road restaurant for the day. "Midweek lunches are good because it's hump day and everybody wants to come out," he said.

Towson University canceled all events Wednesday except the lacrosse game against University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Goucher College canceled evening graduate classes. Employees in county offices were placed on liberal leave and county library branches within the affected area closed at 5 p.m.

Some Towson-area residents remained optimistic.

Mary McDougall, a resident of Courthouse Square Apartments, would not hold the county to a tight deadline for restoring water service.

"I'll be happy if it's on by tonight; I'll be able to hold on," she said. "I just want to be able to take a shower in the morning."

McDougall said that before her spouts went dry Wednesday morning, she put water in her bathtub so she could wash her hands and flush toilets throughout the day.

"It's not a crisis yet," said Henry Fostel, who, having not been able to shower in the morning, used the day to work in the front yard of his Wiltondale home. "It's a nice day - just have to work until the water comes on, and shower then."

Fostel was not prepared to be without water for much longer, noting that he only had "three toilet bowls full" of extra water in his three-bathroom home.

When asked what he would do if water was not restored to his home, Fostel said he would do what he anticipated many other residents would: "Complain loudly."

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