The townsfolk saw that there was a clandestine lawn waterer in their midst--the telltale sign: an emerald green lawn--and the 301 people who inhabit the old Quaker village of Waterford in Loudoun County were in high gossip mode.
During a drought that has dried up many wells, almost no one dares to have well-watered grass, even if they do have the water.
"They know how people feel about it," resident Anne Hardy, 35, said as she wrapped up her volunteer job teaching Bible school. "It's completely wrong in Waterford at this point to be watering your grass."
In the small towns and outlying villages around Washington, the spying season has begun. Rural dwellers either own their own well or share with a neighbor, but the feeling is that everyone's wells draw from the same supply of underground water. So watching out for the water supply is everyone's responsibility.
Community pressure to go easy on water use is hard to ignore among the 12 percent of Marylanders and 5 percent of Virginians who use wells. Everyone notices the brazen few who wash their cars in the driveway or sprinkle their petunias. In Lincoln last week, one woman got out of her truck and hollered at a man she saw watering his lawn in broad daylight.
"Even if you're not specifically stealing [water] from your neighbor, you are lowering the groundwater table," said Hardy, who moved to Waterford eight years ago. "Some people might feel, 'If I've put in a 500-foot well, why should I have to restrict myself just because my neighbor's out of water?' But for the most part, there is a sense of a shared problem."
Hardy said that she and her husband, a computer consultant, are luckier than most because two cisterns on their property give them a ready supply of water for outdoor use in addition to their well. They recently used the cisterns to power-wash their roof, which was about to be painted. But Hardy was tormented. She worried about neighborhood gossip.
"I think our neighbors know us well enough to know we wouldn't waste well water on power-washing," she said.
Wells that have dried up in Waterford this summer have left five or six residents without indoor water. Almost everyone is schlepping to laundromats in Leesburg. The joke goes around about renaming Waterford "Waterless" or "Dryford."
The dry spell makes life in a rural village suddenly seem a lot less quaint. One hostess who threw a dinner party recently asked guests to forgo the BYOB and bring ice cubes instead.
The well shared by Mary Sue and Skip Couser and their neighbor in an adjoining house went dry in June. The Cousers, who moved to Waterford five years ago from Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County, take baths at neighbors' houses and make nightly trips to Catoctin Creek to fill buckets of water for use around their circa 1810 house.
Skip, 60, an executive with Vie de France/Yamazaki, demonstrated his bucket-filling technique earlier this week. "You have to sort of throw it down and make it submerge or it will roll over on its side," he said, hauling up a 48-pound bucket of creek water.
The Cousers' neighbor--and partner in misery--is Susan Williams Mularie, who keeps a couple dozen one-gallon jugs of water on the counter in the kitchen of her circa 1750 house for watering plants and flushing toilets.
"That's the problem," she said. "Now I'm living like it's 1750."
Under these circumstances, even seasoned hostesses face awkward social situations. Margaret Good, whose husband is a corporate lawyer in Washington, fretted about plans for the annual summer party for the firm's interns. Her first concession: paper plates. "I figure on this one occasion I'll be forgiven."
Trickier still is the problem of delicately conveying to city dwellers the information that, in some country towns, people don't flush the toilet after each use. Townsfolk view the five to seven gallons needed to flush a toilet as too precious to waste.
In Taylorstown, Judy Ross thought nothing of asking dinner guests for jugs of water and trays of ice in lieu of bottles of merlot or chardonnay. When her well went dry a month ago, she adapted by hooking up a garden house to the outdoor spigot at the nearby general store.
"When water's not flowing freely you become very aware of how other people are using it," said Ross, who runs a marketing and consulting business out of her 1737-era stone house. "You drive into a city and see people watering their grass. In the country it's brown all around."
Driving across the parched hills of western Loudoun, Lisa G. Payne, the vice mayor of Purcellville, said she can't help but notice green lawns and sprinklers going in the middle of the day.
"I think there are a lot of people who are starting to get upset about this because we've lived out here for a while and we know what these urban dwellers will do when they get out here," Payne said. "They don't have any point of reference. They think the supply of water is endless."
The Waterford resident who keeps the lawn green is newly arrived from the suburbs--and people know it. But they think she should have caught on by now.
So residents considered the delicate matter of asking her to put down her garden hose. Someone paid a visit to Linda Landrath, owner of the Waterford Market--the town's sole purveyor of groceries and supplies--and told her that she probably was in the best position to broach the subject.
Landrath, 56, who was making yarn on her spinning wheel during a lull in business last week, said she understood. She is, she said, "sort of the old crone around here." But she confessed to feeling stymied.
"It's a tricky issue," Landrath said. "I'm still thinking of what to say to her."