Water supply policy sought for Washington suburbs; Montgomery executive will propose creation of a drought plan


ROCKVILLE -- Before last month's mandatory water restrictions become a dusty memory, top officials in the Washington suburbs want the region to develop a drought management plan to serve as a model for the state.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, one of the first Maryland politicians to call for water conservation this summer, says it is up to governments to develop a blueprint for dealing with future droughts.

Duncan will offer his proposal tomorrow to the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments: to create a regional water commission and a policy that spells out when an emergency exists, what steps should be taken to address it and how government officials and the public are informed.

"We fumbled the ball this time," said Duncan. "We need to be ready for the next time. If we're lucky, it's 70 years away. But maybe we're not lucky, and it's a year away or five years away."

The Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments represents 17 local governments, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the District of Columbia, the city of Bowie and northern Virginia.

The council formed a drought task force in July at the urging of the League of Women Voters, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Fairfax County (Va.) Board of Supervisors.

Duncan said a water commission, consisting of elected officials and representatives of utilities, would be similar to the groups that discuss regional transportation and Chesapeake Bay issues.

Similar to air pollution policy

The water supply policy would operate much like the one that kicks in when air quality deteriorates and residents are asked to refrain from refueling their cars in the daytime and using gas-powered lawn mowers.

However, reaching a consensus could generate a replay of the regional bickering that took place when Marylanders could not water their lawns or wash their cars for four weeks this summer.

Voluntary conservation

Duncan's call for voluntary conservation on July 12 -- which resulted in a 10 percent drop in Montgomery County use -- was supported by leaders in the District and northern Virginia, several of whom appeared at a news conference along the banks of the Potomac River. But unity disappeared Aug. 4, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed mandatory restrictions statewide, and Duncan supported him.

Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams and northern Virginia leaders said the move was unnecessary, and Prince George's Executive Wayne K. Curry made no effort to enforce the governor's order.

Duncan criticized his colleagues -- specifically those in northern Virginia -- for failing to take the drought seriously. They, in turn, accused him of grandstanding.

"When we had a unified message, it was working," Duncan said of voluntary conservation. "You shouldn't have a region split the way this one was."

Duncan said the regional water agreement approved in 1978 and amended in 1982 is a roadblock to decision making by elected officials.

The agreement placed the responsibility for water supply monitoring and emergency notification in the hands of utilities.

"These people are in the business of selling water," Duncan said. "It's not to their advantage for them to say 'Don't use water.' "

For example, he said, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies water to Montgomery and Prince George's, lost about $1 million for each of the four weeks of restrictions.

Ideal time for a plan

James Caldwell, Duncan's representative on the task force, said now is the perfect time to draft a plan.

"When you write a drought agreement when you're not in a drought, you have a problem because you don't know what all the issues are," said Caldwell, director of Montgomery County's Department of the Environment. "Now everything has been brought into focus. Now we know what's important, and we can craft a unified response."

The task force is expected to issue its report by mid-November.

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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