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  • Special Report: The Drought of '99

  •   Water Conservation Q&A

    By Ann O'Hanlon
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, August 8, 1999; Page A20

    Q: In the absence of rain, just how much watering is necessary to keep the shrubs and trees in my garden alive?

    A: That depends, says Christine Flanagan, public programs coordinator at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Native species, large trees and any plants that have been in your yard for five or more years are likely to fare well even if you don't water. If you can't do that, then watering once a month will be sufficient. They will go dormant -- and may even lose many of their leaves -- but they will revive once there is rain.

    Hearty plants that require the least water include anything with a waxy leaf, such as holly and magnolia. Also, most lawns, especially fescue varieties, will survive the drought without much help.

    But if you've recently landscaped with young plants, be attentive. They'll need the equivalent of about an inch of rain a week.

    Q: And how would you measure that?

    A: If you don't live in Maryland and are permitted to use a sprinkler, gently sprinkle at dawn or dusk once a week. Put a can out and sprinkle until there is an inch of water in the can.

    If you live in Maryland and must water your shrubs with a hand-held hose, water until you can stick your finger or a shovel about four inches into the soil, said Susan Martin, horticulturist at the National Arboretum. If you can feel or see moisture, your plants will be fine.

    Q: I live in Maryland. Is there any limit on the amount of time I can stand there holding the hose and watering?

    A: No. Do it until you get tired or until the ground looks saturated or the plant perks up, said Andrea Jolly, director of Montgomery County's Volunteer and Community Service Center.

    Q: What about soapy water? Will it hurt my plants to water them with dish or bathtub water that I've saved?

    A: Don't use dishwater, since most dish-washing detergent is designed to kill bacteria and most bacteria in the soil are beneficial. Some detergents, designed to cut grease, are also too acidic for most plants.

    Water from a shower or bath is fine, especially if you're using a mild soap. If you're going to use water from your washing machine, use only the last rinse cycle, since any other water would have a high sodium content.

    Q: Soaker hoses deliver water very efficiently to plants. Are they illegal in Maryland?

    A: Yes, they are. The concern is that people will water for long periods of time with anything other than a hand-held hose.

    Q: Is there anything besides watering that I can do to help my plants?

    A: You can ease the stress on perennials -- such as daisies, coneflowers or bee balm -- by stripping them of about one-third of their foliage. Mulch helps keep moisture in, but beware of too much mulch, which will keep water from seeping down into the soil.

    Q: Since modern fountains and pools recirculate water and use filtration systems to keep water clear, why should they be turned off?

    A: Mainly for enforcement reasons, according to Jolly. It's hard for anyone doing the enforcement to tell whether it's a fountain that recycles or uses new water. In addition, those recirculating fountains and pools still lose water to evaporation.

    Q: But my fountain is part of a goldfish pond. Do I still have to shut it off?

    A: If a fountain also serves as an aeration system for fish, it can be left on.

    Q: Maryland restrictions say I can't top off my swimming pool. What's going to happen if I don't keep it filled?

    A: Nothing good. Unless your pool is the kind that has a main drain at the bottom, the filtration system will stop working once the water level drops below the intake lines. Once the filtration system stops, algae will accumulate quickly. The only alternatives are to pay a supplier from outside the area to fill it or to buy a solar cover, which will slow evaporation.

    Q: In July there were several releases from the Jennings Randolph reservoir into the Potomac. Was that water for people or fish?

    A: Both. Water authorities have good estimates on how much water area utilities take out. They also have specific data on what the water level needs to be to maintain river life, such as fish. So when the expected flow at Little Falls drops below levels needed for both people and fish, water is released from reservoirs.

    Q: What happens to the water that is saved in the Washington area? Doesn't it just go into the Potomac or other waterways and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay anyway?

    A: Yes, it does go to the bay and on to the Atlantic. There is no way to transfer water saved in the Washington region, where Potomac River reservoirs are relatively full, to other areas of Maryland such as the Patuxent watershed or elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic where drought conditions are even worse. But conservation is always a good idea, said James A. Warfield Jr., the executive officer of the Fairfax County Water Authority.

    Q: The Redskins have been seen on TV screens with sprinklers in the background at their training camp in Frostburg, Md. Will they be fined for using sprinklers, which are banned under state restrictions?

    A: The Redskins are a Maryland business, and businesses have been asked to voluntarily cut water usage by at least 10 percent. They are doing that, said Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). Most businesses may not water lawns, but the Redskins and the Orioles are exceptions, because the lawns are an integral part of their business.

    Q: Many people are flushing the toilet less frequently. Is that a health risk?

    A: Not at all, according to Lynn Frank, Montgomery County's chief of Public Health Services, unless there are small children around who are prone to reaching into the toilet and contaminating their hands. Frank also cautions that area water restrictions do not pertain to personal consumption of water. Drink at least eight glasses a day.

    Q: Does homeowners' insurance cover drought damage to gardens?

    A: No. Trees, shrubs and lawns generally have very limited insurance which does not include drought, according to Bill Howard, an independent insurance agent.

    Q: When water levels drop in reservoirs, does that increase contamination and make it harder to clean the water for drinking?

    A: No. In fact, the opposite is true, according to Sandy Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Water Authority. When the reservoir is quiet and low, fewer sediments are stirred up and the water is easier to clean.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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