The well is running dry

Sun Staff

Edwin Grimmel Jr. stands beside an all-but-empty, 10-foot-deep pond that spans three-quarters of an acre on his Jarrettsville farm. This is the first time it has dried up since the pond was dug more than 50 years ago.

The pond, fed by a spring, dried up three weeks ago, Grimmel said yesterday. Saturday's thunderstorms left an inch or two of water in the bottom -- nowhere near enough for one cow, let alone all his livestock.

Grimmel, whose family has owned the 245-acre farm since the early 1900s, is luckier than most -- he has a well that he can tap to fill water troughs for his animals. But for other Maryland farmers, particularly those in northern Harford living near Grimmel, there is no water.

More than 50 farms in the county's northern communities of Madonna, Federal Hill and Norrisville report that their wells, so vital to the operation of a farm, are bone dry, Harford officials say.

So Harford took the drastic step yesterday of asking the U.S. Agriculture Department for an additional $300,000 grant from the Emergency Conservation Program to help farmers pay to drill new wells.

In the meantime, farmers can get water by bringing containers to Abingdon off Route 24 near Bel Air. Anne Arundel and Howard counties are also giving away water. .

"Due to the severe nature of the current drought and its toll on both citizens and the agricultural community, Harford County must make water available from the public water system to farmers and citizens whose wells have failed or are in jeopardy of failing," said James M. Harkins, Harford County executive, as he stood yesterday on Grimmel's farm.

This year's severe drought has devastated crops, dried up wells, springs, streams and reservoirs, and has turned pastures into dust throughout the state.

Today at Liberty Reservoir, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to announce tougher water restrictions, including one that will require businesses to cut water consumption by 10 percent.

The Baltimore area already is under a drought emergency, which prohibits residents from watering lawns and washing cars, sidewalks and driveways.

In Grimmel's case, said Robert B. Cooper, deputy director of Harford's Department of Public Works, the stream that forms the eastern branch of Winters Run on his farm has disappeared.

"It's a bad sign when the springs and ponds are drying up," Cooper said.

This year's drought, according to Fred Faulkner, program manager for the Harford Health Department, has surpassed the record drought of 1966.

"We have all-time record lows," Faulkner said. "It's going to take time to replace the groundwater, but we don't know how long it will take to recover to normal levels."

'Very serious situation'

Faulkner stressed that even if it rains, it would not be enough to relax water conservation.

Harkins called the drought a "very, very serious situation" and said it will take a year of above-average rainfall to replace depleted groundwater. He said that the area is about 13 inches short of average rainfall amounts since July of last year.

Well-drillers are telling residents that it could take six to eight weeks to bore a new well, Faulkner said. Nearly half of Harford's residents depend on wells for water.

This year, the county has issued permits for 161 replacement wells for noncommercial locations. Of 46 issued to farmers in northern Harford, 32 were to replace springs or ponds that have dried up and 14 were to replace wells on the farms.

In 2001, only one permit was issued to replace a well on a farm, Faulkner said.

Although Cooper said that Harford residents have done their part since restrictions were first imposed in April, county workers will begin placing large signs around the county as well as in businesses and schools. The blue signs read: Harford County Drought Emergency Conserve Water.

Help is available

Harkins said farmers and residents may obtain water for personal use at the county's Department of Public Works Abingdon complex at 3111 Philadelphia Road. Residents are asked to provide their own containers.

In Howard County, officials also are offering assistance to people with failing wells or other water supply problems.

Residents may obtain water at Mt. View Middle School in Marriottsville. Another water site is planned in the Clarksville area, said Robert Beringer, chief of the Bureau of Utilities for the Howard County Department of Public Works.

"We want to be sure everyone has the ability to get water," Beringer said.

In Anne Arundel County, officials are making drinking water available at 20 fire stations to residents whose wells are running dry. The remaining nine fire stations are on wells, and the firefighters there are drinking bottled water.

In Baltimore County, officials said they had no plans to supply water to residents whose wells are running dry.

In Carroll County, officials in Westminster said they would put the Roop's Mill well online within the week to supply up to 187,000 gallons per day for the city's water system. Also, officials said they plan to bring in water as needed from the Medford Quarry to the city water treatment plant at a cost of $12,000 per day.

Those efforts will be supplemented by advertisements in Carroll County newspapers and mailings to the water system's 8,000 customers on water use restrictions, officials said.

Groundwater is slow to rebound, said Frank Skinner, environmental health director at the Howard County Health Department.

"It may take months for water to percolate through the soil and the rock to a place where it can be drawn out," Skinner said. Considering the runoff that occurs after a storm, "a hurricane next week really wouldn't do much for ground water."

Sun staff writers David Nitkin, Sandy Alexander, Mary Gail Hare, Julie Bykowicz and Athima Chansanchai contributed to this article.

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