Just when the weather is right for washing cars and filling backyard kiddie pools, some folks in Anne Arundel and Howard counties will have to stow their garden hoses to take the strain off a water system that has lost a main from Baltimore's reservoirs.
"We've got to cut down on our peak," Robert Beringer, chief of Howard County's Bureau of Utilities, said yesterday, as officials in both counties announced that they were ordering tougher restrictions on water use. "We just can't all use water at the same time."
Evidently, lots of people were using water at the same time over the hot and dry Memorial Day weekend, enough to raise concern about protecting the supply needed for fighting fires. Conditions in Maryland are considered "abnormally dry" by the National Weather Service, though reservoirs are full, groundwater is adequate and the Maryland Department of the Environment's water supply chief is not calling this a drought.
County officials said the water restrictions have nothing to do with rainfall or available water. "There's plenty of water," said Beringer, "we can't get it to all our customers at the same time."
Strong measures had to be taken, officials in both counties said.
For about a third of Anne Arundel County in northeast and northwest neighborhoods, that means no outdoor water use is allowed for any purpose at any time - no washing cars or patios, watering lawns, filling pools. As recently as Wednesday, Anne Arundel was allowing outdoor water use in these neighborhoods during limited hours.
Residents of the eastern half of Howard County cannot use their garden hoses at any time on holidays, and from 5 p.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday, and from 5 p.m. Friday through midnight Sunday. Until yesterday's announcement, Howard County had been allowing residents to use outdoor water on a staggered schedule, even-numbered addresses on even-numbered days, odd on odd-numbered days.
In both counties, the restrictions are in effect until further notice. Anyone caught using a garden hose in violation of the rules could be fined, or have his public water connection cut. Using a watering can filled indoors to water plants outside is allowed.
The city of Baltimore last week asked residents in four southwestern neighborhoods to voluntarily limit water use by taking shorter showers, running the dishwasher only when it's full, repairing leaks and curbing lawn watering.
The source of the trouble is a pipe measuring 54 inches across that carries water from Baltimore's water treatment system through Baltimore County into Anne Arundel and Howard counties. The pipe was first shut down in January, then inspected in March and found to be in such bad shape that it was taken out of service permanently.
Parts of the pipe in a stretch about 1 1/2 miles long will have to be replaced, said David Fidler, spokesman for the Baltimore County Public Works Department, which maintains the pipe. Fidler said the work is expected to begin in the fall and not be completed until May at a cost of roughly $10 million.
Howard and Anne Arundel maintain other connections to the Baltimore system, but the loss of this main significantly pinches supply.
Howard County spokeswoman Victoria Goodman said about half the county is on public water, and about 90 percent of that comes from the Baltimore City system.
Michael Bonk, the deputy director of utility operations in Anne Arundel County, estimated that the damaged main carries 10 percent to 20 percent of the county's daily water supply. He said the county has been able to make up for some of that loss through other connections, but the areas most critically affected are in Jessup, Arundel Mills and Maryland City.
Anne Arundel County relies on wells for most of its water, but it is not self-sufficient. In 2003, the county imposed water restrictions for a reason similar to this year's: a broken water line in a neighboring jurisdiction. At that time, the county restricted water use for 13 months because of a broken pipe in Baltimore that runs under the Key Bridge. The county also faced drought conditions that year.
Rain sparks hope
County officials are hopeful that rain today will take pressure off the system as residents will be less inclined to water their lawns.
"This is only June 1. This is really early to have these problems," said Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.
Coincidentally, a 12-inch main broke at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup on Wednesday night, cutting off water to the prison for a few hours and causing water pressure in the area to fall "critically low," Owens said. Water service was expected to be completely restored by this morning, she added.
The 54-inch main was taken off-line just as Maryland was experiencing some of its lowest rainfall on record.
Steve Zubrick, science and operations officer of the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., said March rainfall, as measured at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, was 4.6 percent of the normal total of nearly 4 inches. That broke a record set in 1910, said Zubrick, marking a low not seen since record-keeping began in 1871.
February rainfall was off nearly 40 percent, Zubrick said. He said the 90-day forecast shows a 50-50 chance of below- or above-average rainfall. The forecast through fall shows a greater chance for above-average rain.
Zubrick said the National Weather Service abides by the designations reported by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska, which lists Maryland as having "abnormally low" water conditions, just shy of the first phase of drought.
The water supply administrator for the Maryland Department of the Environment said indicators through April show some low groundwater, particularly in the western and easternmost areas, but no drought. He said information from May had not yet been compiled.
"Our reservoirs are 100 percent full," said Saeid Kazraei. "As far as drinking water, we are not stressed."
Unless, of course, you prefer drinking your water from a garden hose and live in certain sections of Anne Arundel and Howard County.
Sun reporters Phillip McGowan and Larry Carson contributed to this article.