Removing poltics from the water supply


ACCORDING to Governor Smart Water and the Solons of Mount Airy, the drought of '99 is officially over.

No longer will the mud-coated cars of Southwest Carroll be paraded as a sign of civic-minded conservation. No longer will South Carroll residents wonder whether they are entitled to water their posies on an odd-numbered day or an even-numbered day. The automatic car washes may resume business.

As the French might say, "apres Floyd, le deluge."

Others of us might say, oxymoronically, "Conservation is a terrible thing to waste."

Indeed, the pall of drought for most of us had evaporated even before the Sept. 16 hurricane hit the mid-Atlantic. By the previous night, year-to-date rainfall for the Baltimore region was less than an inch below normal. Five days later, it was more than 5 inches above normal. And since every year is either below or above normal, there's little "abnormal" in the 1999 precipitation totals.

Still, the first mandatory state controls on water use were in effect for August, the month that is typically our hottest and driest.

The state based its restrictions on a two- or three-year period, insisting that the cumulative rainfall was 10 or 12 inches below "normal."

What the governor ignored

While Gov. Parris N. Glendening's edict ignored the vast differences in water supply and usage statewide, the positive effect was to encourage water conservation by responsible citizens.

Statewide water consumption, measured against recent Augusts, dropped by about 12 percent. That was achieved without active enforcement or coercion; businesses crimped by the limitations knew the significant risks of open violation.

Carroll County's towns took the usual precautions before the state acted. Their water supplies are mostly based on wells, which are not easily replaced if they run dry. Manchester continued its year-round outdoor water restrictions for the fifth year, anxiously awaiting the addition of two new wells by December.

But the unprecedented statewide prohibitions, which hit hard at enterprises that must use more water during the dry season, seemed to be based more on the imperious nature of Mr. Glendening than on the exigencies of local water supply and demand.

The governor didn't place much credence in the wide variations of natural rainfall. He didn't seem to recognize the importance of inflows of ground water to lakes and reservoirs. Some wells ran dry, undoubtedly, but they usually do in Maryland summers.

Reservoir differences

Certain reservoirs were well below average summertime levels. But others were less affected. Baltimore City's Prettyboy Reservoir, which sprawls into northeastern Carroll, dropped to 30 percent of its 19.6 billion gallon capacity. Liberty Reservoir in southeastern Carroll was two-thirds below capacity, but larger Loch Raven Reservoir was filled to nearly 80 percent of its capacity.

Amid the governor's dour pronouncements, the city's public works chief, George F. Balog, proclaimed the metro water supply "a drought-proof system." The city system, which serves 1.8 million customers in the region, was supplied to last into the next year, he said. In fact, Mr. Balog calculated that the mid-August supply of 38 billion gallons could last for a full year longer, even without any rain.

This is the same Baltimore City that has been sitting on Carroll County's request to draw an additional 2 million gallons a day from Liberty Reservoir to treat and supply county residents. With Baltimore sucking 100 million gallons a day from the Susquehanna River to supplement its reservoirs, that would be a drop in the bucket.

City-county tussle

Baltimore's reluctance stems from its view that land around the reservoir should not be developed, while Carroll sees it as an area planned for development. So the water is there; it just can't be accessed by South Carroll users.

Even before summer began this year, the 18,000 Carroll residents that get water from nearby Liberty Reservoir were under a ban on outside water use. It was later changed to allow alternate-day outdoors watering, and is still in effect.

Mount Airy enacted a total outside water ban on June 11 and promised to keep the prohibition until a new town well comes on line next month. In the face of the late summer drenching, the community relented last Tuesday.

However, nobody needs to water the lawn or garden now.

There's much evidence that the month-long statewide water restrictions were unnecessary, given the variations in local supplies and conditions.

An earnest appeal to the citizens would have sufficed for the brief period. Local governments are better able to regulate use of available supplies. Hurting nurseries, golf courses and car washes when they need water the most causes more harm than good.

Like Baltimore City, the state executive should take a longer view of things and exercise some patience before issuing sweeping commands.

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

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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