31 days till taps run dry in Frederick

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FREDERICK - This city is running out of water.

Officials here can even put a date on it: Unless there's a good hard rain, the taps will run dry in 31 days, one month from now.

The once-robust Monocacy River is down to a fraction of what it once was. Frederick's reservoir at Lake Linganore is drying up. The city is frantically digging wells looking for new sources of water and has an emergency plan to start trucking it in if it comes to that.

But in a prolonged drought like this one, the only real solution is soaking rains, and resources would probably best be spent wishing for them. Of course, you can't find a fountain in this city of 53,000 to toss a penny in.

"We are talking about something we have never had to deal with," said Mayor Jennifer Dougherty.

Strict conservation measures are in place. Neighbors rat on neighbors who water their flowers or wash their cars. All new home construction has been halted for the past seven months because the city can't provide the 250 gallons a day each new house requires.

Though water has been scarce throughout Central and Southern Maryland, there are reasons beyond drought that have put Frederick in these dire straits: Overbuilding, says the mayor. Poor planning, say the builders.

And the water is disappearing just as the Northeast heads into one of the driest months of the year.

"Unless we get a major storm, like the remnants of a hurricane, there's probably not too much relief in sight," said Kenneth E. Pickering, the state's climatologist and a meteorology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In Frederick, building permits have been granted without regard to whether there was enough water to support the construction - a departure from what is done in most jurisdictions. That is going to change.

Once there is enough water to allow construction to begin again, each single-family house will be assessed a $5,100 impact fee, and permission won't be given until there is proof of adequate water and infrastructure.

For now, though, a dozen half-built subdivisions are sprinkled throughout Frederick, waiting for the moratorium to be lifted in a city that once issued about 800 permits a year. Every day, builders lose more money, said developer Steve Oder, president of the Frederick County Builders Association.

The mayor has been spending about three-quarters of her time talking about water problems. Her staff has been searching out leaks in the city's plumbing - at one point, she said, about a third of the city's water was seeping through holes in what are in places 100-year-old pipes. At her weekly news conferences, Dougherty has been known to hand out water-conserving shower heads and toilet dams.

Throughout the 1990s, different master plans for sewer and water were written. All of them recommended the city seek additional water supplies, Dougherty said, as the city grew by 30 percent during the decade. The city's water customers now use between 6.5 million and 7.5 million gallons a day.

At a cost of more than $1 million, the city is drilling a new well, hoping it will provide an emergency supply of up to 1 million gallons a day. Because of the urgency, pipes linking it to the rest of the system aren't being put underground. It is expected to be in operation by the end of the month.

For the long term, though, the city hopes to draw on the Potomac River as an additional water supply. That project - which would cost $27 million over 10 years - won't be on line for three or four years.

While permits for that hook-up would come through the Maryland Department of the Environment, Curtis Dalpra of the nonregulatory Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin said the Potomac "is not an infinite source of water for everyone. The river isn't making any new water, yet this area continues to increase in population.

"It's kind of a shame. People don't think about their drinking water until something like this happens."

Dougherty has an emergency plan ready to go if the water in Frederick runs out. Carroll County has agreed to provide 3 million gallons a day. There are tanker trucks on standby to bring in more - at a cost of $250,000 for every 30 days - which would be dumped into the river and then go through the city's treatment plants.

The city of Harrisburg, Pa., has offered free water if Frederick can haul it. There is even a plan to bring portable toilets to the city if there is no longer enough water to flush reliably.

"We operate under [the assumption that] the worst-case scenario is going to happen, because so far it has," said city spokeswoman Nancy Gregg Poss.

Rain has been forecast this weekend, but the precipitation that has come lately hasn't been nearly enough to make a dent. Despite the hype, last weekend brought only two-tenths of an inch to the city. Small rains, officials said, actually harm the situation. People start thinking the drought is over, and they pay less attention to conservation.

There have been droughts in the past, but never have so many people relied on Frederick's water supply and never has Frederick been down to just a month's worth of water.

"Honestly, when the water conservation plans were written, no one ever anticipated us to be this low," said Col. John E. Ball, the garrison commander at Fort Detrick, which has even more stringent water restrictions than the rest of Frederick.

The garbage incinerator there has been shut down - it uses too much water, so trash goes instead into the landfill. That saves 150,000 gallons of water a day, Ball said, but eats up more landfill space. Dishwasher use has been prohibited and paper plates are being used in the dining halls. And two-minute showers have been ordered - all in the name of 50 percent water reduction. The next stage, if the situation worsens, would be to go to four-day workweeks on the base.

Last week at the Great Frederick Fair, organizers trucked in 20,000 to 25,000 gallons a day to feed the animals and wash them down. Dirty water is being collected and used to irrigate plants. Dusty roads are hosed down not with water but with a chemical solution.

"It's been a lot of work," said local businessman John Bare, a member of the fair's board of managers. "It's going to cost the fair a lot of money."

Fredrick resident Pierce Atkins recently bought three 60-gallon barrels to collect water off the roof when it does rain. The water lasts up to 10 days, but now the barrels are empty. When there is water, he uses it on his garden. He has given up on the lawn.

When he takes a shower, he collects water in a bucket as he waits for it to heat up - then uses that to flush the toilet. He uses wet wipes to wash his hands. He collects the condensation from his air conditioner and dehumidifier.

"It's the hardest thing in the world" for people to conserve water, Atkins said. "To most people, water is free, like the air."

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