Despite snow, city drought restrictions still in place


A record snowfall is still gurgling down the drain. Maryland's streams are swollen, and the water is rising in rural wells.

Almost 10 billion gallons of runoff has poured since the middle of last month into the Baltimore reservoirs shriveled by last year's drought.

So why is it still a violation, under drought emergency rules imposed last year, for people using city water to turn a garden hose on their salt-encrusted cars?

"We just don't feel safe enough to start to lift the restrictions at this point," said Robert H. Murrow, a spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. "We have a duty to the 1.8 million water customers we serve to be on the safe side."

Although Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lifted the 10-month-old drought emergency last month for most of Central Maryland, the city and suburbs supplied by Baltimore's reservoirs remain on level-one restrictions on water consumption.

And they're likely to remain under those restrictions until the city's water managers are confident they have enough water in the reservoirs to get everybody through another hot, dry summer.

"I think we're looking for around the 10-year average or more," Murrow said.

For this month, that means a target of at least 88 percent of capacity. For April, it would be 94 percent.

Last week, the water levels stood at a combined 80 percent of capacity. It would take another 7 billion gallons of runoff to get to the 88 percent level.

The water is still rising. But consumers are also drawing down 250 million gallons a day.

'Quite a bit of snow'

Murrow said Public Works Chief George Winfield "wants to see what the reservoirs look like after a total thaw of all this snow. At that point he might go for lifting restrictions. Incredibly, there's still quite a bit of snow that hasn't melted."

The water restrictions mean it is still against the rules to use anything but commercial washes for cleaning cars, trucks, trailers and boats.

It is also forbidden - in the city and those parts of Baltimore, Harford, Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties that get their water from the city - to wash paved surfaces, decks, siding and patios.

And if the restrictions are still in place when it is time again to water lawns, that will be prohibited, too, as will the use of automatic sprinklers on gardens, shrubs and outdoor plantings.

The water supply situation has been improving rapidly since October - when the reservoirs sank to a record low 42 percent of capacity.

And since the big snow began falling Feb. 15, almost 10 billion gallons of water have been added to the reservoirs, a 20 percent boost in supplies. The snow Baltimoreans shoveled and cursed last month will become the water that will fill their ice trays this summer.

Reservoirs' levels

Loch Raven Reservoir was full last week. Prettyboy Reservoir was at 79 percent of capacity, and Liberty Reservoir was at 69 percent.

In March of last year, soon after city officials began asking consumers to conserve, water supplies had fallen to 55 percent of capacity.

Four years ago, at the start of the 1999 drought, the water supply stood at 79 percent - about where it is today.

"You never think you're going into a drought," Murrow said. "You always think you'll get normal precipitation."

The city reservoir system has not been 100 percent full since May 2001.

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