Md. Counties Disagree on Enforcing Limits |
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 7, 1999; Page A1
Washington's two largest Maryland suburbs are responding in starkly different ways to statewide water restrictions -- one mobilizing to educate residents and stop violators, the other refusing to enforce the rules without proof that a water crisis exists.
Within hours of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's announcement Wednesday, Montgomery County officials declared their own water emergency. The county printed 100,000 educational brochures, set civil fines for violators and authorized more than 700 police officers and county workers to confront scofflaws. By contrast, leaders in Prince George's County have not planned a public education campaign and say they will not fine violators.
They note that the water authority serving both counties insists it has enough water to last into November even if not another drop of rain falls.
Most Maryland counties are charting courses somewhere between those taken by Montgomery and Prince George's. Anne Arundel is distributing 15,000 fliers. Maryland State Police and county sheriff's deputies are enforcing the rules mostly through warnings in Southern Maryland counties. In Howard and several other counties, only the most extreme violations will draw fines.
So far neither the District nor Virginia has followed Maryland's lead with mandatory water restrictions, although Loudoun County has imposed mandatory limits and Fairfax County yesterday announced several voluntary steps it will take to set a good example. Those include shutting off ornamental fountains, limiting watering to trees and bushes, and using recycled water to wash county cars.
Michael Morrill, Glendening's spokesman, said Prince George's officials were ignoring the depleted rivers and parched landscapes that are the telltale signs of the region's deepening drought.
"I've heard Prince George's is not on top of the game," Morrill said. "I have very little to say about people who don't believe [this is a serious situation]. The evidence is out there. All you have to do is drive down to the Potomac."
As millions of Marylanders suffered through a second day of hot sun and little water, President Clinton announced that the drought parching Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island was the worst in history for those states' agriculture. He said he would convene a task force of federal agencies involved in emergency drought relief "to coordinate our efforts and focus our attack on this problem."
Weather forecasts offered little hope of a quick end to the water limits. The National Weather Service predicted a slight chance of scattered thunderstorms for tomorrow with the next possibility for rain three days later.
"This could be a drought that continues on for a long time," said James Baker, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary District, the water agency serving Montgomery and Prince George's, reported that water use on Thursday declined 16 percent from the average daily use over the week before the restrictions were in place.
But the reductions haven't come easily. State and county hot lines continued to sizzle with complaints and requests for information. Montgomery has received 1,500 calls in two days, while the state doubled the number of phone lines set up to handle calls arriving at a peak rate of 500 an hour. Neighbors continued to tattle on scofflaw neighbors.
Glendening (D) has prohibited lawn watering and car washing statewide, while asking most businesses to trim water use voluntarily by 10 percent. Carwashes that do not use 80 percent recycled water must close. Golf courses must reduce use by 80 percent.
Maryland officials outlined plans to grant state residents exemptions from the restrictions if applicants could prove an "extraordinary hardship." The guidelines defined that as "permanent damage to property or other personal or economic loss which is substantially more severe than the sacrifice borne by other water users subject to the prohibitions."
Those interested in applying for exemptions should contact their water company or county governments. Among those likely to do so are school districts whose football fields are growing rock-hard for lack of water, well-water users, and elderly residents who have difficulty in the heat watering gardens with the hand-held hoses allowed under the rules.
Many Maryland school districts have stopped watering landscaping and athletic fields, less than two weeks before football practice is scheduled to begin for the fall season. The state has granted waivers to allow PSInet Stadium and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to water NFL gridirons while trying to cut consumption by 10 percent.
Brian Porter, a spokesman for Montgomery schools, said the district was working with the state "to clarify its policy" on watering. Howard County stopped but will seek a waiver to start again before football practices begin Aug. 16.
"We're very concerned about the long-term cost of having to replace fields," said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County public schools. "And even more so we're worried about the safety of the kids."
Virginia Hall, 81, said she and her 88-year-old husband installed a sprinkler system at their Gaithersburg home a year ago to help them keep their tennis court-size lawn and garden moist. Now they are watching it turn brown, unable because of their age to stand under the hot sun to water it with a hose.
"They tell us all the time we can't go out in heat," Hall said. "We might get heatstroke. Would that be good for the governor's policies?"
Maryland's mandatory restrictions have generated rich debate throughout the suburbs.
Curry did not return repeated phone calls yesterday. But he told Channel 9 that WSSC has prepared well for such a drought by building reservoirs and that restrictions are unnecessary as a result, echoing the position of many officials in the District and Northern Virginia, which also draw their water from the Potomac River.
"I think at this point most people are volunteering to follow the governor's suggestion," said County Council member Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington). "I'm sure if it became critical, [Curry] would enforce it."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) called for voluntary restrictions in his county almost a month ago to try to prevent the unprecedented release of water reserves from Little Seneca Lake in western Montgomery. But the water was released, and Duncan said the need to draw down reserves is reason enough to require conservation.
"Once your backup is gone, you have a real health and safety hazard on your hand," Duncan said. "I'm taking this very seriously. We are not in immediate danger, but if we don't get rain or a tropical storm, we could be in real trouble."
Staff writers D'Vera Cohn, Maria Glod, Steven Gray and Jefferson Morley contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company