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  • Special Report:
    The Drought of '99

  •   From Drought, a Hot Commodity

    By Raja Mishra
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, August 10, 1999; Page A10

    For Stuart Levin, the drought means big business.

    Orders are streaming into Talbert's Ice and Beverage Service in Bethesda, which Levin runs. Talbert's supplies bottled water to area restaurants, caterers and private customers. Levin said business this year is the best in memory.

    An already booming bottled water market and Marylanders' desire to preserve municipal water supplies by keeping their taps off have contributed to his sales boom, Levin said. Of course, week-long stretches of temperatures in the 90s have helped.

    "People just want to beat the heat. It's been so hot this summer, and with people outdoors so much, they need water," he said.

    But despite the sound of the cash registers, he is not especially eager to see parched conditions continue.

    "If the entire water supply dries up, I don't know if any water company will be able to handle it," he said. "We'll all be in real trouble."

    Area merchants such as Levin who trade in water are experiencing strong sales thanks to the drought. Maryland well-drilling companies have as much as a two-month backlog of customers whose wells have dried up and who are eager for their services.

    Many of those who are experiencing brisk business say it's troubling to see longtime clients suffer. And, of course, the drought means tough times for some businesses, among them nurseries, as homeowners choose not to invest in new plants that they may be unable to water.

    The record-breaking stretch of dryness has meant new opportunities for the Brickhouse Farm Company in western Howard County, which bottles water from a spring on its grounds. The company has contracts to supply Safeway stores with its spring water, but on the same day Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) announced restrictions, retail behemoth Wal-Mart came calling.

    "Wal-Mart figured they were going to have a huge demand for bottled water the rest of this summer," said sales manager April Sellers.

    Bill Barnes, manager of the Air and Water depot in Gaithersburg, also is seeing increased sales, but he's worried about a looming problem. Barnes's company sells purified tap water. For now, he can use as much water as he needs, but Glendening's drought orders stipulate that businesses must prepare emergency plans to cut their water consumption by 10 percent.

    "My customers are already worried that the state will restrict my water business. They're thinking about alternatives," he said. "To tell you the truth, I don't know what will happen."

    The mixed blessing of the drought is most evident in the well-drilling industry. Hundreds of shallow wells are drying up, requiring re-drilling. This may mean big business for well drillers, but at a cost. Most of them have close relationships with well owners, chief among them small farmers who share daily tales of woe: dead crops, hungry livestock, empty wells.

    "We don't like to take advantage of someone's misfortune," said Olive Burns, co-owner of Easterday Well Drilling Inc. in Mount Airy, which has a two-week backlog in drilling requests. "It's made our lives miserable, because we have so much work to do but also because we see how many people are losing their wells."

    "I just tell my customers that they'll have to wait for at least eight weeks before I can get to them," said Robert Frank, president of Frank's Well Drilling in La Plata. "That's eight weeks without a regular water supply for many of them."

    Wells that are 50 feet or less in depth draw their water primarily from rainfall, which takes about three months to trickle from ground level into the underground streams that supply wells. Lack of rainfall in May is responsible for dry wells today. Because there's been little rain since then, thousands of Maryland wells will probably go dry in the next three months.

    For the owners of nurseries, the drought and water restrictions mean many would-be green thumbs are staying home. As a result, sales are taking a nose dive. At Sun Nurseries in Cooksville, August sales are down 50 percent, said owner Erik Rosenbaum. But he's more worried about the next two months, which account for almost a quarter of annual sales for most nurseries.

    "If things don't change by September, even worse October, then we'll take a serious hit," Rosenbaum said. "We need a good soaking rain in the next couple of weeks."

    State officials say the drought will probably not come to an end until the arrival of heavy rains from a tropical storm. As a result, Levin, the ice and bottled water supplier, sees his company in a race with the drought.

    He gets his water from springs in Big Springs in Maryland and Berkeley Springs in West Virginia, two areas under drought emergencies. He hopes his supply will last until fall, when rain typically increases. But he's not taking anything for granted.

    "Fall usually means cooler temperatures and more regular precipitation," Levin said. "I hope fall comes early this year."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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