More than $36,000 that Fairfax County has spent so far this year buying extra water to supplement its dwindling supply could have been paid for by the federal government if the county had applied for the money, according to the Department of Commerce.

Commerce spokesman James Register said Fairfax County's purchase of at least 5 million gallons of extra water a day from Falls Church was a project eligible for funding under an emergency drought program supervised by the Commerce Deapartment's Economic Development Administration.

Fairfax County has spent at least $72,000 since Aug. 17 to buy the water from Falls Church. Under the emergency drought program, 50 per cent of such a project could be federally-funded.

"But we made money from that purchase, since we bought it for less than it costs to treat our own out of the Ocoquan Reservoir," said Fairfax County Water Authority spokesman James Warfield. "We understood that the program would only fund emergency measures that could not be undertaken without outside financial assistance."

Register said the drought program "never specified that you couldn't use the (federal) money if you had other money."

Fairfax County has contracted with the City of Manassas to buy 1.5 billion gallons of water at a cost of $172,000 if the water level in the Occoquan Reservoir falls to the 94.5-foot mark, an unlikely prospect at this point. The county water authority also has spent $8,000 to mail out notices on mandatory restrictions on water use.

These are projects eligible for funding under the drought relief program. Warfield said the contract with Manassas and the mail-out were undertaken after the deadline had passed for applying for the federal funds.

"It wasn't like we were passing up money," Warfield said. "At the time the funds were available there wasn't anything we had to apply for. Prior to Sept. 15 there was no emergency water situation."

The county asked residents to begin restricting water use voluntarity Aug. 5. That same day, the water level in the Occoquan Reservoir had fallen to its lowest levels in recent times.

"We could have done so much with that money," said Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale). "There are people in this county whose wells have run dry and need help. We could have had a real conservation effort going with some funding."

Virginia Beach in southeast Virginia received $6.8 million in grants and loans under the program to build storage tanks for water, Register said.

The relief program authorized $225 million nationwide for areas affected by drought, but only $175 million was appropriated. The Commerce Department certified Fairfax County as eligible to receive funding in mid-July, Register said. The county's eligibility was published in The Washington Post July 15 and in the Federal Register July 26.

Deputy County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert said the county staff had taken "expeditious action" in seeking the federal funds.

"There was some question as to what would apply under the program, so there was some checking going on," Lambert said.

A former program coordinator for the relief funds, Wilbur Paul, said he personally arranged for water authority staff members to pick up information and applications for the funds at his home on Aug. 16. after noting that the county had not requested any funds.

"I was reading all these articles in the newspapers about Fairfax County's water problems and I thought it was funny they hadn't come to us for money," Paul said. "So I thought I'd let them know myself what was available."

Warfield said the water authority received the information on drought relief funds Aug. 17. When the water authority called the Commerce Department to inquire about the relief funds after Sept. 15, there were none left, he said.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors directed county staff to inform the board on the current status of the relief funding by Monday.