ANNAPOLIS -- The lawns are parched on the Broadneck Peninsula just north of here. The grass glows yellow when evening comes, but the hoses and sprinklers sit idly by garage doors. There is plenty of water to drink for the thousands of new residents in the fast-growing suburb, but there isn't enough water for the lush, green lawns they dreamed of owning.
When July brought drought and record high temperatures, the sprinklers of Broadneck worked overtime. So much water was pumped over lawns and shrubs that daily water consumption more than doubled.
Anne Arundel County officials feared too little water would be left to fight fires, so they severely restricted afternoon and evening outdoor water use, snatching prime sprinkling time from thousands of worried suburbanites.
Similar water restrictions have been imposed in other newly developing communities this summer -- in Anne Arundel and Fairfax counties as well as Annapolis -- and water officials and horticultural experts say the reason everywhere is the same: Owners of new houses are pouring excessive amounts of water over new lawns to make sure they survive the summer. And in the process, officials say, the owners are straining local water systems that were designed to handle a much lower daily consumption.
When Annapolis water towers ran low earlier this summer, city officials ordered that only residents of even-numbered houses could water their lawns on even-numbered dates, and only people in odd-numbered houses could water on odd-numbered dates. In Fairfax County, officials have asked residents to do the same thing voluntarily.
In Broadneck, where daily water use has averaged 115 gallons per person throughout the year, officials were forced to act when water use shot up to 281 gallons per person. Outdoor water use there has been banned from 4 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from noon to 8 p.m. on weekends.
Area officials said the restrictions will be lifted as soon as regular rains fall and homeowners stop watering, giving water storage tanks time to fill up again. But the problem is likely to recur in future dry spells, they said, until new suburban lawns become better established and new homeowners become confident in the ability of their lawns to survive a summer.
"If you bought a house today and got a new lawn and new sod, you'll water like heck for the first two to five years," said Fred Griffith, director of the Fairfax County Water Authority. "After that, you'd be surprised at the number of people who just wait until it rains. They know by then that the lawn is going to come back, and they aren't going to spend a lot of time watering it."
"As you go around these newer communities, these middle-class and upper-middle-class communities, you find a lot more watering," said David Hitchcock, a Maryland agriculture extension agent who lives in Broadneck. "The watering is probably in direct proportion to the amount they've spent on landscaping."
Hitchcock said homeowners should relax more and let nature take its course. "It's a normal occurrence for grass in this area to turn brown in the hot, dry summer months," he said. "It goes into partial dormancy, then greens up sometime in September. People pour water onto it and in many cases it keeps it green, but at a cost to our water supply. We've just been kind of spoiled."
Bill Smith, who lives in a three-year-old house in the College Manor development in Broadneck, was watering his dried lawn one recent afternoon. "I don't think it's doing that much good to water it," he acknowledged. "I've never had a problem having green grass before -- I've lived in Mississippi, Virginia and Texas. But it all seems to burn up here in the summer."
In the nearby Raintree development, Maxine Rusiewski was watering the lawn of her three-year-old house as she does every day. "I hate to see this go down," she said, surveying her yard. "I have a lawn service come in too, and if you don't water it, it will burn out."
Like many other Broadneck residents, Rusiewski blamed the county for not providing enough water. "I don't think the county has planned well enough," she said. She disputed the county's contention that Broadneck residents use more water than people in other areas. "I don't believe it," she said. "Maybe I do, but a lot of people here don't water at all."
"I think people are very distressed about it," said Roy Hoagland, vice president of the Lower Broadneck Civic Federation. "We've had unprecedented growth, and the county is not able to pump enough water to accommodate it."
County utilities director Thomas Neel acknowledges that Broadneck residents face more lawn problems than most. The soil is sandy, he said, and water sprinkled on a lawn can drain away quickly. In addition, a large number of Broadneck's lawns are new; the peninsula's population, currently 35,300, has grown by 34 percent since 1980.
In Anne Arundel County, public water is drawn from wells rather than the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, which provide water to most other jurisdictions in the Washington area. Neel and other county officials say they have planned well and have plenty of water for current and future development. They insist that it is a waste of money to build big water towers and drill deep wells just to accommodate lawn watering during a few weeks of drought each year. "It would cost a minimum of $5,000 per connection, including apartments, just to meet the peak day demand," Neel said.
Griffith of the Fairfax Water Authority agrees. "You can design your system to take care of those situations where you have a tremendous amount of new lawns, but when the system gets older you get areas like Arlington, where they don't use anywhere near as much water. You'd have too much capacity. They don't use the amount of water they used to."
So while waiting for the lawns to mature and the new suburbanites to learn to live with brown grass, Griffith said, water suppliers have little choice but to restrict water use when drought comes.
"You aren't going to take that lawn away from the Fairfax County resident," he said, "any more than you're going to take his car away."