The prolonged dry spell and lower stream levels have forced suppliers of water to Bel Air and Edgewood Arsenal to switch from their systems to the county's in the past few weeks, while the supplier for Aberdeen Proving Ground plans to make the change as soon as tomorrow.
More customers means the county must provide an additional 4.5 million gallons of water a day from its treatment plants. Customers will probably not notice any difference in taste or pressure, nor will they see spikes on their water bills, officials said.
"We have the water available, but we are cautious," said Joel Caudill, deputy director of the county Public Works Department. "Had this happened earlier in the season, when customers were using more water, we may have had some problems."
The county system's total daily capacity is 20 million gallons, with average use at about 13 million gallons this time of year, leaving some capacity that can be sold to other users, officials said.
Monitoring equipment at two water treatment plants along Winters Run, the county's smallest stream supply, has shown significantly reduced flow for the past two months. Those decreases, well below the median of 27 cubic feet per second, have meant that the two suppliers who use Winters Run as a water source were rerouted to the county system.
The Edgewood Arsenal area, at the southern end of Aberdeen Proving Ground, switched to the county's system three weeks ago, drawing about 1.5 million gallons per day. The Maryland American plant draws a similar amount as it supplies about 3,000 households in Bel Air.
Deer Creek, which Aberdeen uses to supply Aberdeen Proving Ground with as much as 1.5 million gallons a day, also has been affected by the dry weather. Unless the county receives significant rainfall soon, the 73,000-acre base will have to switch from the municipal system to the county's.
Aberdeen officials met with Army officials this month to discuss the flow in Deer Creek, a 73-mile stream with headwaters in York County, Pa. Abnormally dry conditions have severely decreased the flow and made pumping water from the stream more difficult.
"If the stream flow gets too low, we will have to stop drawing," said Matthew M. Lapinsky, Aberdeen's public works director.
The county negotiated an agreement with the base three years ago, promising to keep 1.5 million gallons a day on reserve for seasonal water shortages such as the one the region is experiencing this summer.
"We can provide the water," said Robert B. Cooper, county director of public works. "We have it reserved for them. They will have to be 100 percent on our system."
The minimum flow on Deer Creek cannot drop below 46 cubic feet per second, according to industry standards. It was at 54 on Friday.
"The flow has dropped considerably, but it is not yet at its limit yet," Cooper said. "The base will have to come onto our system soon."
That could happen as soon as tomorrow, he added. Even if the flow does not fall lower, Cooper said he may order the switch as a precautionary measure.
"We have just not had enough rain," Cooper said. "This is the best we can do until we get more rain, especially at the beginning of Deer Creek."
Suppliers typically pay the county's standard rate - $2.25 per 1,000 gallons, the lowest water cost in Harford.
The three smaller systems may stay on the county's lines for several months, Caudill said. During the drought in the summer of 2002, flow in the creeks did not return to adequate levels until well into 2003, he said.
"Once we have made the switch, we don't switch back until the flow is up and expected to stay up," Caudill said.
The county's system pumps about 16 million gallons daily from three major plants to about 42,000 households. Abingdon, the largest plant, can pump 10 million gallons daily from Baltimore's Loch Raven Reservoir or, if the drought continues, the Susquehanna River. The plant is scheduled for an expansion that will double its capacity in the next few years.
The county gets an additional 5.2 million gallons a day from the Perryman well fields and the rest of its daily supply, about 4 million gallons, from its Havre de Grace plant.
Demand is down slightly, but officials are still asking residents to practice conservation.
"We are asking residents to be thoughtful about water use, particularly watering lawns and washing cars," Cooper said. "We may have to go to mandatory restrictions if we don't get more rain."
Water yards and gardens in the early morning to minimize evaporation.
Water plants, flowers and lawns with a hand-held hose as much as possible.
Avoid watering driveways and sidewalks.
Install water-saving toilets.
Check frequently for leaks in toilets and pipes, and repair leaks promptly to reduce waste.
Turn off water while brushing teeth.
Sweep sidewalks and driveways instead of washing them.
Compost food waste instead of using the garbage disposal, which can use a large amount of water.
[Source: Harford County Department of Public Works]