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  • Special Report: The Drought of '99

  •   Glendening Taking the Heat

    By Daniel LeDuc
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, August 8, 1999; Page C1

    Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s decision last week to impose the first mandatory water restrictions in state history has again thrust him into the national spotlight as debate sharpens over whether he needed to apply them across the whole state.

    His move to ban most outside water use won wide praise from conservationists as he became the first governor this year to mandate limits statewide. He appeared on “CBS This Morning,” made the front page of the New York Times, and reporters from as far as Tokyo sought him out.

    But his decision angered many citizens and led to second-guessing from some local officials in Prince George’s County and Northern Virginia, which joins the Washington suburbs in drawing water from the Potomac River. Water supplies are not the same throughout Maryland, and tough restrictions did not have to be imposed statewide, they said.

    Glendening (D) defended his actions, saying it is important to err on the side of caution.

    “I just can’t imagine what I’d say to Marylanders three months from now if we had less water or water contamination,” Glendening said in an interview. “If we get the rains, I’d rather face a few people who are irritated because they lost some shrubbery.”

    No one outside Glendening’s administration urged him to take the steps he did, not the managers of the state’s water systems or other elected leaders.

    “It’s inappropriate to be lumping the [Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission] and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in with other jurisdictions when they may have separate and distinct problems,” said Maryland House Minority Whip Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard). “There’s something about Parris Glendening that he likes to tell people what to do.”

    Glendening has acted boldly and been rewarded for it in the past. He closed part of the Pokomoke River just before Labor Day weekend in 1997 when the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida killed fish and sickened people. Critics questioned the need then, but only weeks later he received national praise for his handling of an environmental crisis.

    “I would rank this up with the challenge of pfiesteria because it affects so many people and the implications are long-term,” Glendening said in an interview before leaving this weekend for a meeting in St. Louis of the National Governors Association. He is expected to be elected vice chairman of the organization, putting him in line to chair the group next year.

    Noting that he was in his second term and unable to seek reelection, Glendening said political considerations did not enter his calculations. Several political analysts said they saw little downside for Glendening.

    “So long as it doesn’t impinge too much on lifestyles, I don’t think the public will object too much,” said Bethesda-based pollster Keith Haller. “There’s a striking similarity to what happened over pfiesteria. In that instance, the public rallied behind the governor. He was at odds with other state leaders [then] . . . and ultimately he seemed to take the smarter approach.”

    Glendening won some vindication last week when the governors of Delaware and New Jersey followed his lead and imposed their own limits; much of Pennsylvania also is under strict water use prohibitions. His actions also have been supported by State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George’s) and Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany).

    The severity of the drought first struck Glendening during a late July meeting in Western Maryland with Gov. Cecil Underwood (R) of neighboring West Virginia. Underwood told him conditions were so dry just over the border that his state was pumping water from limestone caverns to increase supplies.

    Within days, Glendening traveled to Southern Maryland and saw the parched farm fields there. At the same time, analysts at the state Department of the Environment, which routinely monitors water quality and supplies, began expressing caution about the cumulative effect of the lack of rain, low stream levels and the tapping of reservoirs. Dozens of small local water systems began reporting that they were calling for voluntary or mandatory restrictions.

    The governor ordered his staff to give him a report. During the course of a July 28 briefing by the governor’s senior staff, word came that Baltimore Public Works Director George Balog told state officials the Baltimore region had just a 35-day water supply. (Balog later said that he was misunderstood and that the region really had a 60-day supply.)

    That news changed the dynamic of the meeting, and Glendening ordered a drought task force created. Plans for a low-key Annapolis news conference to urge voluntary water cutbacks were scrapped in favor of a more attention-grabbing locale – Carroll County’s Liberty Reservoir, which is 24 feet below its normal level. The next day the governor announced that mandatory restrictions were all but certain – though he hoped they could be phased in.

    The drought task force held two public meetings in the next several days, after which Glendening learned that conditions had worsened and that his task force was now recommending tougher restrictions than he had originally contemplated.

    There was a risk in angering suburban Washington residents because the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission had more water in reserve than Baltimore, but Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) had already called for voluntary restrictions July 12.

    After meeting with his task force, Glendening went ahead Thursday with his water restrictions and warned they could be in place through the summer or longer depending upon the weather.

    Some experts said his proactive stand made sense.

    “The WSSC has plenty of reserve now,” said Kelly Enders, a spokeswoman for the American Waterworks Association, an international organization whose engineers work on water quality issues. But, “how much do we want to deplete our resources and put ourselves at risk six months or a year from now?”

    Nevertheless, water commissioner Burton Rubin in Fairfax County, which also draws its water from the Potomac, said that Glendening’s actions were unnecessary and that he was perplexed why the governor was invoking them when reservoirs were still adequate. Prince George’s County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) said he too believed the water supply was sufficient and ordered police not to fine violators.

    Glendening said “a sense of fairness wishes we had uniform policy” across state borders in Virginia and the District, which have no restrictions except in Loudoun County. “But that’s up to the officials over there.” He said that if the Potomac drops farther, he intends to be “more insistent” in demanding cooperation from Virgina officials.

    He said he had driven along the Potomac several days ago and was as concerned by the river’s low level as he was by the low amount of water in Baltimore’s reservoirs. Look, he said, leaning forward: “I would love for you and everyone else to write [in a few weeks] ‘Look at all the rain. The governor acted prematurely.’ But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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