Drought threatens Susquehanna River water-usage limits

ABERDEEN - A deepening drought in the Susquehanna River basin may soon force golf courses, power plants and other big water users in the three-state watershed to cut their usage, find alternate sources or pay hefty fees for the river water.

Susquehanna River Basin commission officials said yesterday that if flow rates in the 444-mile-long river continue to fall, the commission would move to impose curbs on major consumers and move to seek water releases from upstream reservoirs.

"Up until two or three weeks ago, the main stem [of the river] was in pretty good shape," said Paul O. Swartz, the commission's executive director. "Now we're seeing the main stem levels drop to where, within the coming weeks, the low-flow triggers will be reached."

The Susquehanna River basin includes 27,500 square miles of territory drained by the river and its tributaries in central New York and Pennsylvania, and a portion of north-central Maryland. Its waters provide half of the freshwater flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

Falling water levels on the lower Susquehanna have forced Baltimore to cut its withdrawals from the river and to impose mandatory water use restrictions on its 1.8 million water customers in the city and surrounding suburbs.

Baltimore slowed its pumps by 53 percent last week after flow rates at Marietta, Pa., fell below 5,000 cubic feet per second. The city is drawing 64 million gallons per day, down from 137.5 million.

Baltimore began taking river water in January to preserve supplies in its three reservoirs in the face of the lengthening drought. At the same time, city water customers were asked to conserve water voluntarily.

In April, the state imposed mandatory curbs on portions of Central Maryland. It didn't impose curbs in those communities served by the Baltimore and Washington water systems.

Swartz said yesterday that he believed, and argued at meetings with city and state officials, it would have been "prudent" for the city and the state to impose mandatory water use restrictions at the same time in April.

But Matt Pajerowski, Maryland's representative on the commission, said the city "did not feel it was appropriate yet to do that, and the state was trying to balance the need for restrictions against available supplies."

The commission can force mandatory curbs by declaring an emergency of its own, as it did in 1999. But it has been reluctant to put itself into conflict with state and local authorities.

With spring rainfall improving in the upper basin and the city drawing from the river to conserve the water in its reservoirs, the commission elected not to force the issue.

At their regular meeting yesterday, commissioners were told that the rains that had begun to provide some drought relief stopped last month, and water levels began to fall throughout the basin.

No matter what happens, Swartz said, Baltimore faces no further cutbacks in its share of river water.

Under its agreement with the commission, the city could even resume pumping 137.5 million gallons per day after Sept. 15 if flow rates at Marietta are above 3,500 cubic feet per second.

But the outlook isn't good. The flow at Marietta stood yesterday at a record low 3,530 cubic feet per second - just 30 percent of normal for the date.