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Allegany towns thirst for relief from drought Makeshift measures ease water shortage; firefighting limited


LONACONING -- When Brian Kidwell twists on the faucets in his house high on a hill in dusty Allegany County, out pours something resembling mud. The water, what there is of it, is filthy brown, fit neither for laundry nor drinking.

But for residents in this parched area of the state, water of any hue has become a blessing. In Lonaconing and the patchwork of other little towns and villages in the Georges Creek valley of Western Maryland, reservoirs are depleted to the point that some are empty.

The water shortage has become not only an inconvenience, but also a danger. Residents have been warned that firefighters cannot tap into what remains of the local water supply and that fires of any size will have to burn until water can be trucked several miles from Frostburg.

"I've never seen it this bad," says Kidwell, 31. "We need rain, rain, rain."

Two years ago, this area -- in the valley between Dans Mountain and Big Savage Mountain -- was overwhelmed, its reservoirs overflowing and floods washing out roads and destroying property.

The contrast with this year is sharp. Virtually no rain fell west of Cumberland in November. A trace has fallen since Oct. 10. Rainfall has been below average in every month since July. In that period, about 8 inches of rain has fallen, not much more than half of the 15-inch average, says Tim Thomas, a National Weather Service observer in Cumberland.

"I've never seen it this dry," says Thomas, who has been keeping records for 34 years.

Tuesday's rain, less than half an inch, was some relief, but not nearly enough, officials here say.

"This about wet the driveways in any practical sense," says Ron Snyder, the county's utility chief. "We need something like 7 or 8 inches to get us back to anywhere approaching normal."

Utility workers have run a spaghettilike network of fire hoses and plastic pipes from hydrants that tap into an ample water supply in Frostburg, to the north, to water systems in the tiny communities of Lonaconing, Shaft and Carlos. Those towns' water systems are usually fed by wells or springs, but they are running dry.

The three miles of hoses and plastic pipes run along roadsides, through back yards, over creeks and under driveways. "It may seem a little amateurish or simplistic, but it's the best we can do right now," Snyder says. "It's either do this or those people don't have any water at all."

Among the problems with the temporary solution is that water pressure causes the pipes and the hoses to move onto roads. Workers have tried unsuccessfully to keep the lines stationary by weighing them down with sandbags.

Even more serious, the lines are likely to freeze when colder weather arrives, leaving residents who have no deep wells without water.

The temporary lines have frozen twice already and have burst under pressure several times.

Officials are taking their chances with the prospect of frozen pipes, but they have been working furiously to replace the fire hoses with another temporary solution, 2-inch plastic pipes buried along roadsides.

Firefighters have been constructing small, temporary dams in the creeks that wind through the foothills, but there's not much water to be dammed.

The small pools of dammed water could help, but if there's a big fire, "we're in trouble," says David Kidwell, a Lonaconing firefighter who is not related to Brian Kidwell.

If there is a big fire, water would be trucked in from Frostburg, he says. The Frostburg system is fed by the 400-million-gallon Piney Reservoir in Garrett County, and it has more than enough water.

Lonaconing, Shaft, Carlos and other communities in the valley are to be hooked up to the Frostburg system permanently by September. In the meantime, officials have banned outdoor watering throughout the county, and residents are taking other measures to conserve water.

John Brant, owner of Brant's Car Wash, says he is not allowed to tap into the community's water supply. He has been using his own spring water for his carwash and has been picking up some XTC business from people not permitted to wash their vehicles. But business has been slow.

"The problem," he says, "is without the rain, cars don't tend to get dirty as much."

Brian Kidwell, afflicted with brown water, says he has invested in his own purification system. To save water, he has been limiting his two children to showers rather than baths, and he has cut laundry back to once a week.

"I can't wash my truck anymore, and that kind of hurts," he says. "At least we have some water coming in, even if it's dirtier than normal. Everybody's just crossing their fingers for now with this supply.

"You don't really start to miss water until you don't have any."

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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