Curbs on water use spread; USDA relaxes grazing restrictions on conservation land

The Baltimore Sun

A drought that first shriveled the corn and hay crops in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore is forcing some residents across the state to suspend watering their lawns, filling their pools and washing their cars.

The latest city to issue mandatory restrictions is Westminster, which joins two other municipalities in Carroll County in banning outdoor water use. Emmitsburg in Frederick County and much of St. Mary's County have also put the brakes on outdoor watering in the past month.

Such water bans could remain in effect through the end of summer, officials said.

All three of the Baltimore area's reservoirs are below capacity for this time of year, but public works officials in Baltimore and Baltimore County say they don't expect to impose water restrictions.

Rainfall in counties affected by the drought has been 40 percent or more below average, and crop yields have declined at least 40 percent, the state Farm Service Agency said.

As municipalities restrict outdoor water use, federal agriculture officials are relaxing restrictions in several counties to permit livestock to feed on environmentally sensitive land that is generally off limits for grazing.

Farmers hit hard by the drought are being permitted to harvest hay on the conservation lands, which include buffer areas along wetlands and waterways.

Water restrictions are more common during the summer, but the drought could worsen if rainfall continues to come up short, said John Grace, a water supply division chief for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"Water levels seasonally drop this time of year," Grace said. "But if we have a dry fall and winter this year, then we're going to be looking at a lot of systems that might put on restrictions. The key is what's going to happen over the next six months."

The lack of rain and two city wells with monthly average levels down about 41 feet and 10 feet led Westminster to ban outdoor water use this week, for the first time since the drought of 2002.

Officials in the Carroll County seat said the restrictions, which could last two months, aim to reduce by 20 percent the 3 million gallons the municipal system delivers on an average day.

"Even if it started raining today, even if we got caught up year to date, it takes a while for that water to recharge the groundwater table," Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said.

Manchester, also in Carroll County, prohibited outdoor water use two weeks ago, but Steve Miller, the town administrator, said he is worried that some residents are illicitly topping off their pools.

In July, Manchester residents consumed 45,000 gallons more than the 280,000 gallons the town expects to use daily, but daily consumption has since declined to 310,000 gallons a day, Miller said.

Mount Airy, on the Carroll County-Frederick County border, has reduced daily water use by at least 70,000 gallons since late July, when town officials barred the use of outdoor sprinklers and distributed conservation tools such as reduced-flow shower heads.

Howard County has had mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use since May, but not because of the drought. Repairs on a deteriorated water main in southwestern Baltimore County led county officials to prohibit watering lawns with sprinklers, filling pools and washing sidewalks and cars on weekends and holidays.

Howard's restrictions could be lifted as soon as this afternoon, said James M. Irvin, Howard's public works director.

Baltimore's three reservoirs aren't critically low, but water levels in Liberty Reservoir, which is at 413 feet, and Prettyboy Reservoir, at 513 feet, have dipped about 5 feet since the beginning of the month, said David Fidler, a spokesman for Baltimore County's Department of Public Works.

Baltimore's reservoir system supplies more than 1.8 million customers in the city and surrounding areas.

Water restrictions have not been imposed in Anne Arundel and Harford counties this summer, public works officials said.

"The stream flows and well levels are at normal to below normal, but not critical," said Jacqueline K. Ludwig, chief of administration and engineering for Harford County's Department of Public Works.

Voluntary restrictions on outdoor water use are in effect in Calvert, Charles and Wicomico counties, and in the cities of Frederick and Princess Anne, the Maryland Department of the Environment said.

Recent showers have helped fill Frederick's reservoirs, so mandatory restrictions shouldn't be necessary, said Keith Brown, assistant deputy director for city operations.

But in Emmitsburg, the local reservoir is a foot low and well levels have dropped, prompting restrictions on outdoor water use that began Aug. 7 and are likely to continue for at least four to six weeks, Mayor Jim Hoover said.

Emmitsburg prohibited the use of automatic watering systems and the washing of sidewalks, driveways, cars and trucks, but it permits residents to water flowers, trees and shrubs with hand-held hoses, Hoover said.

Hay, which the state's farmers bale and store to feed their cattle and horses during the winter, has been a major victim of the drought, agriculture experts said.

In the past week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave farmers in Calvert, Montgomery, St. Mary's, Somerset and Washington counties, and parts of Carroll and Frederick counties, permission for grazing and haying on conservation land that the farmers usually are paid for not cultivating.

In Garrett County and other parts of the state, farmers who have produced plenty of hay are working with the state to sell hay to farmers in areas where the crop was destroyed, said Bob Tjaden, assistant director of agriculture and natural resources programs for Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland.

Statewide, farmers have been granted permission to use more than 22,000 USDA-designated conservation acres for haying and grazing, said Bebe Shortall, farm programs chief for the state Farm Service Agency.

Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt, Larry Carson, Mary Gail Hare and Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.


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