Biggest Water Users Face Least Regulation |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 1999; Page A14
Maryland's strict water restrictions are landing hardest on small residential users while requiring few sacrifices from the federal labs, businesses and hospitals that draw the most from the region's depleted rivers.
Maryland residents can no longer water lawns or top off backyard pools. But many of the state's largest users are being given broad discretion to devise their own water conservation plans with virtually no oversight from government regulators.
Some are even winning waivers. Sprinklers will be allowed to run at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and PSINet Stadium in Baltimore, thanks to lobbying by stadium officials before the restrictions were imposed. Limited outdoor watering also is permitted at the University of Maryland at College Park for sports fields and experimental plantings.
In imposing the first statewide restrictions in Maryland history, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) placed mandatory limits on outdoor water use while only requesting that companies and residents do their level best to trim back on indoor consumption. State officials plan to monitor water use in the coming weeks to see if businesses are doing enough to protect Maryland through its worst drought since the Depression.
"I would prefer if there were more mandatory restrictions," said Neal Fitzpatrick, conservation director of the Audubon Naturalist Society. "But we've never been down this path before. We're all learning."
Although the browning of the suburbs started last month, Maryland's first day under mandatory water restrictions presented an odd adjustment for residents and businesses as a resource they once took for granted was suddenly so precious it could lead to criminal charges and large fines if abused.
Many companies drafted voluntary plans yesterday to reduce water use by 10 percent, most relying on cutting back cleaning and other activities that could affect appearances but not core operations. The decisions amounted to a public relations trade-off: Would customers be more repulsed by dirty sidewalks or clean ones washed daily while their own lawns singed in the sun?
Susan Woods, communications director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said companies faced voluntary restrictions because the governor wanted to give them time to reduce water use without harming business. Companies are not required to submit water reduction plans to state regulators, but Woods said they should have them on hand should mandatory restrictions become necessary.
"We don't want to be overly punitive and cause undue hardship," Woods said.
Giant Food Inc. began throwing away bagged poultry waste in trash bins after shutting off the enormous water-guzzling grinders the company usually uses. The company also stopped washing sidewalks in front of its 176 stores in Maryland, Virginia and the District. But Giant will continue making ice cubes at its plant in Landover, a very large water user.
The Six Flags America theme park in Prince George's County stopped watering plants and flowers. Park spokeswoman Debbie Daniel said water from the park's decorative ponds would be used to soak some annuals and other plantings, but once that water runs out, it will not be replaced. The water park will continue operating.
Federal complexes are exempted from the state regulations. But at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, officials have devised a plan to reduce the 1.3 million gallons of water used daily to run the complex of labs and to support 15,000 employees. It calls for using plastic utensils in the cafeteria, washing the laboratory cages holding rodents and primates less often and even adjusting water valves on urinals to save water with each flush.
"We're trying to set an example," said NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky, although he did not know whether the cutbacks would amount to a 10 percent reduction. "We think it's the right thing to do."
Some Maryland businesses, though, face more than voluntary restrictions. Golf courses, which must trim consumption by 80 percent, are among the few big commercial users likely to suffer serious hardship.
The vantage from the first tee on Congressional Country Club's vaunted Blue Course would already break many a golfer's heart. The venue of two U.S. Open championships is gradually burning up for lack of rain. From the line of white pines, dogwoods and oaks rising from the rough, brown creeps toward the still-emerald fairways.
To the left, a parched hill slopes up to the 17th fairway. To the right, a once verdant practice area is dun colored. The creek running along the 10th hole is bone dry, and the pond next to the green is four feet below its regular level and covered with algae. The upside is that members' scores are lower: Tee shots roll farther on the rock-hard fairways, and the rough is less lush to hang up errant shots.
"This is what I would call drastic," said Meric Legnini, chairman of the green committee at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. "This makes us very nervous. We have 350 acres to water and protect on our members' behalf."
The restrictions also require professional carwashes to close unless 80 percent of the water they use is recycled. Many large operations have installed recycling equipment, which commonly costs from $50,000 to $100,000, but smaller carwashes are trying to put off closing down as long as possible.
Thomas R. Marsh, 54, owns a combination restaurant, Laundromat and carwash in McCoole, Md., called the Chat & Chew. He has run it for 20 years, drawing water from five wells, but he does not recycle water. He said the equipment is too expensive.
Though the restrictions required him to stop, Marsh was still washing cars yesterday at Chat & Chew. He also lobbied his state delegates and senators, looking for a loophole that would allow him to stay open.
"I'm just one of a number of small independent business owners in the state that have been asked to close their doors," Marsh said. "It's discriminatory. What provisions are being made for my mortgage to be paid? It's ruthless to tell us to close shop."
Leisure World, the town-size retirement community in Silver Spring, began urging its 7,000 residents yesterday to save water through messages on the closed-circuit television system. The collection of apartments and clubhouses set amid groomed lawns is Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's largest residential customer, paying an annual water bill of $1.2 million.
"When there are 4,600 homes and apartments out there, it is really up to them, so we are taking the education route," said Kevin Flannery, Leisure World's vice president. "But I don't think they will go for communal showers."
Staff writers Stephen C. Fehr and Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company
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