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Cool, Cool Water -- or Any Other Kind


If you listened carefully during last week's miserly shower, you could almost hear "that great sucking sound," as sometime East Texas politician Ross Perot puts it.

Not the metaphorical rush of jobs south of the border, but the desperate draft of a desiccated earth that has endured a withering summer even as the weatherman cheerily reminds us that "we'll have another beautiful day" for outdoor activity.

There was scant evidence of the sudden, short-lived rainfall. The parched ground showed no sign of relief, the lawns lost none of their sere coloration, dried flowerbuds remained unrefreshed, the dust rose again and swept over everything in sight. A published photo of a Bel Air pedestrian using an umbrella was rare testimony to the downtrickle. A long month had passed before this tantalizing, disappointing sprinkle, despite the occasional deceitful promise of darkened skies.

As this was written, the forecast called for a rain break by Monday. The year-to-date rainfall for this area is a good 4 inches short of normal, but the effect has been magnified by the exceptionally dry summer. Much of the measured rain fell before the hot season began, and August was uncomfortably dry.

The delightful cool weather this late summer has eased memories of the earlier heat wave and stagnant air mass that smothered the region. But September's paucity of moisture prolongs the drought.

Farmers first saw the consequences. Corn and soybean crops will be disappointing, needing the late summer rain to see them to normal harvest. Earlier plantings of these cash crops were also below average. "Drought of the century" was the conclusion of Brownie Pearce, a Perryman farmer whose flat fields have been sucked dry.

Still, produce and fruit yields were above average, depending on when they were planted and picked. That's another reason why the lack of rain and the falling water tables did not seem so ominous, until now.

Winters Run, the source of water for Bel Air, is flowing at less than half its average level. The Maryland-American Water Company, which supplies more than 13,000 people in Bel Air and environs, announced mandatory restrictions on water use a week ago. Sit down at a local restaurant and a glass of water will be served only on request. Lawn watering and car washing are proscribed. Swimming pools and ornamental fountains are not to draw on municipal water supplies. No hosing down the driveway or house gutters.

The curbs are enforced by town fine or, certainly more threatening, the possible cutoff of water by the company. Officials didn't expect to impose sanctions, however, since voluntary compliance seemed to be working. For the first time in its century-old existence, the private water company began buying supplies from the county to ease the strain.

In contrast, Harford County's water system appeared in good shape. The acquisition of ample supplies from Baltimore city's "Big Inch" pipeline to the Susquehanna River two years ago served the county well. Previous concerns about the adequacy and safety of wellfields were put to rest, with the opening of the Abingdon water treatment plant last October.

Demand was nearing capacity level of the wells when the new supply agreement was reached, and the plant construction began. That has proven to be a most successful development for Harford, which provides drinking water for almost 80,000 individuals along the U.S. 40 and Route 24 corridors.

Aberdeen was also in good supply, largely due to an agreement three months ago with Harford County to obtain up to 500,000 gallons a day from the county system. The city is also close to reaching an accord with Aberdeen Proving Ground to gain additional long-term water supplies by sharing the Army treatment plant that draws from Deer Creek. Larger water supplies are crucial as the city continues to expand.

The Susquehanna, meantime, is experiencing low flows that are visible to all, the rocky islands and silt beds rising from the river bottom. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission imposed drought management restrictions three weeks ago on six facilities (all in Pennsylvania) that draw water from the river. Yet two years ago, the mighty Susky was threatening to flood its banks and breach the Conowingo Dam because of an unusually high spring runoff.

It's all a reminder that despite our elaborate dams and pipelines, pumping stations and treatment plants, we continue to rely on the whim of nature to meet the basic human need for water.


CAL CALLS: To readers who called to inform me that, indeed, a baseball field will be dedicated to Cal Ripken in Aberdeen, I was aware of that fact. The point of last week's column was on what was being done by Aberdeen and Harford County to mark his consecutive-game baseball record, and the local motivations for the commemoration.

The ballfield and bleachers to be built on city-owned land near the Washington Park development in east Aberdeen were a contribution by the Major League Baseball Players Association. While the city will gratefully maintain the park and playing field for community recreation needs, the idea and gift came from admirers outside Cal's hometown. Which is not to suggest that Aberdeen wouldn't have done something like that eventually, but that other local tributes were chosen instead.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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