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As Harford gasped for relief from the heat, the county's brand new water plant sucked nothing but dry air from the rain-starved Susquehanna River at low tide.

But the drought hasn't stopped some residents from hooking up their sprinklers and watering their lawns and gardens.

"It's the first time I've ever used the thing," said Regina Sargent as she watched the arching fountain cascade over her pink, blue and white impatiens Wednesday. "My feet hurt so bad from being pregnantthat I got tired of standing here and watering my flowers every day."

As a resident of the Park Campus development east of Bel Air -- which has a private water system -- Sargent was one of the lucky onesexempt from a prohibition against lawn sprinkler use. The county imposed the ban in June to help cope with the summerlong drought.

With tides at least a foot below normal in the Susquehanna River Monday,the Department of Public Works shut down the county's $4 million water treatment plant for two days that opened in Havre de Grace only last month.

Two hours after low tide Wednesday evening, the water barely submerged the pipe that feeds the plant. Ducks floating by risked scraping their bottoms on the rocky riverbed.

"The pipe . . . can't handle an extreme drought like this," said Jackie Ludwig, a civilengineer in the Department of Public Works.

"This is highly unusual. We're at Mother Nature's mercy. Right now, we're just asking people to become aware of how much water they're using. The Susquehanna'sat its lowest levels since 1965."

County administrators urge residents to voluntarily conserve water by taking baths or shorter showers, running their dish washers only when full and using a pail of soapy water to clean their cars.

Havre de Grace and Aberdeen each havetheir own water systems; most of Bel Air and some other areas of thecounty are served by the private Maryland-American Water Co. Those systems are not affected by the sprinkler ban or the conservation effort.

Nobody had been fined for violating the ban through Wednesday.But any of the county's 23,000 public system customers caught in violation would be subject to a warning and a $50 user fee for a second offense.

Steve Gary, public relations manager for the PhiladelphiaElectric Co., said the Susquehanna River flow "hasn't been this low for nearly 30 years."

"The all-time low river flow at our Muddy Run Reservoir, which is part of our Conowingo facility, occurred in 1965, when flow was measured at 3,900 cubic feet per second," said Gary."The average July flow is 15,500 cubic feet per second. The flow today (Tuesday) was 4,200 cubic feet per second."

The all-time high river flow occurred in 1972, when Philadelphia Electric personnel measured the flow at 60,900 cubic feet per second, he said.

Harford's problem is not supply, but increased demand for water created by the unusually hot weather, said Ludwig.

"The problem occurs on weekends at like 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon, when everybody is having picnicsor are out washing their cars," Ludwig said. "Even if they just change the time they wash the car that would be an immense help."

The worst problem county water users can expect is a drop in water pressure at peak demand times, Ludwig said.

To make up for the closure of Harford's water plant in Havre de Grace, which pumps 4 million gallons of water a day, the county bought has been buying 2 million gallons of water daily from a neighboring plant owned by the city of Havrede Grace.

To meet additional demand, the county planned to pump yesterday and today from all eight of its wells at the plant in Perryman to increase water output from 3.5 million gallons of water a day to 4.2 million gallons a day. Usually six wells run at once, drawing water from an aquifer. They are rested occasionally and not pumped full time, Ludwig said.

Last Sunday, Harford residents used a peak 6.84 million gallons of water a day.

With everything running full tilt, the county could supply a maximum of 7.3 million gallons of watera day.

As long as the scramble to find water stays ahead of demand, customers won't notice a difference in their bills, Ludwig said.

"They'll actually save money if they conserve and use less water," she said.

The rain Thursday and Friday morning and wet forecasts for the weekend offered hope of some relief.

But County Administrator Larry Klimovitz said Harford has these three priorities:

"Conserve water, pray for rain."

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