An estimated 200,000 residents of northern and central Baltimore County are being asked to ration water - at least until noon tomorrow - because reserves have been lowered to potentially dangerous levels by a series of mechanical failures at two pumping stations.
The problems - at Baltimore's Cromwell and Guilford pumping stations - have left the water level low at Towson Reservoir, which supplies Towson, Timonium, Cockeysville, Dulaney Valley, Hunt Valley, Sparks, Lutherville, Ruxton and other areas.
Ed Huff, Baltimore's water system manager, said the affected area typically uses 52 million gallons of water a day. Yesterday afternoon, the water was being replenished at a rate of only 40 million gallons a day.
After working through Friday night, public works employees appeared to have successfully repaired the Cromwell pump late yesterday afternoon. But 10 minutes later, a major water line adjacent to the pumping station on Cromwell Bridge Road burst, forcing workers to shut down the newly repaired pump.
"Everything looked good," said Kurt Kocher, a Baltimore Department of Public Works spokesman, "then one guy said it felt like a train moving. ... The water started pouring from the curb and coming out of the manholes."
Workers were able to start a smaller pump at the station, but until the main is repaired and the larger pump restarted, conservation is vital to ensure adequate supplies, officials said.
"We don't want anybody to be out of water," city Public Works Director George L. Winfield said.
He asked residents to limit their water use to basic needs, and to refrain from watering lawns, washing cars and filling swimming pools.
"If everybody does their part, we should have an adequate water supply, but conservation is the key," Kocher said. "Don't even use the dishwasher if you don't have to."
Continuing difficulties with the pumps have made city officials cautious in their predictions of success.
Engineers hope to bring relief from rationing as early as noon tomorrow, Kocher said, but success depends on repairing and testing the broken main and on continued operation of the large pump, which has been out of service for an upgrade over the past few months.
Guilford failed first
Officials said they first became aware of an electrical problem with one of two smaller pumps at the Guilford station on Cold Spring Lane near Loyola College at 11 p.m. Friday. The station's two large pumps, which had been upgraded this year, are under repair.
To avert a dangerous decline in water levels at 15 million-gallon Towson Reservoir, near Hillen Road and Stevenson Lane, Winfield decided to quickly bring one of the two large pumps at the Cromwell station on line. Only one of the station's small pumps had been feeding water to the reservoir while two larger pumps and the other smaller pump were being upgraded.
"We had two locations feeding, but the pumping capacity was not sufficient, based on the draw down of the reservoir," Winfield said.
Repair crews worked through Friday night on the Cromwell station with no progress, and by morning the reservoir was losing a foot of water every hour, officials said.
At 12:30 p.m. yesterday, the city Public Works Department issued the first water conservation request.
"We feared there might be some outages starting in the morning in the Sparks area and working south," Winfield said.
After some false starts, public works and contract employees were able to restore power to one of the large Cromwell station pumps at 4:45 p.m. yesterday, but 10 minutes later the main gave way.
'Still under warranty'
Winfield said he hopes to complete repairs on the Guilford pumps by midweek, and is in touch with the equipment manufacturer.
"They're still under warranty," he said, "and we're obviously experiencing some problems with those pumps."