In these brown and brittle times of drought, there is a moral dilemma beginning to creep into homes across Maryland with shimmering backyard pools: whether to heed the law or stay cool and wet through the dreaded heat of August.

Under Maryland's emergency restrictions, pools cannot be refilled. This means that when pools lose water--as they always do--skimmers won't work and many filter systems ultimately will be shut down, leaving crystal-clear water to turn pond-scum green.

What's an overheated Marylander to do?

Ann Tucker, who services pools across the Maryland suburbs, said she's stumbled upon sights of the forbidden: garden hoses, in the filling position. "I think there is a little sneaky filling, a nobody-knows-who-did-it kind of thing," she said.

How many will cross the legal line is hard to say. Pool water levels are only just now beginning to drop, she and others suggest, because of evaporation, splash-out and backwashing.

"They're probably going to sneak out at 2 or 3 in the morning" to refill, predicted one Montgomery County pool-company owner, who said several customers already had confided as much. "If it's the heat of summer, they're going to swim."

But Bill Wagner, of Wagner Aquatics in Poolesville, said his customers were talking nothing of the sort. "They must be more law-abiding," he said. He added that the predicament is deeply felt, with about 10 percent already pool-less.

"Almost every client I have," he said, "has called me screaming, 'What am I going to do?' "

Water-hauling companies say scores of the desperate have called them, pleading: Use water from other states, whatever it takes.

"We've had people call and ask us if we will go to Pennsylvania and get water--and they are willing to pay just about anything," said Kendra Linkins, of Hardesty & Son Inc., in Edgewater.

That's against the law, as it turns out. No matter what the origins of the water, no refilling is allowed, the state says. The penalties for ignoring the law are up to $1,000 in fines and up to six months in jail.

The big exception is for just-built in-ground pools, which can collapse if not promptly filled. Knowing this, some savvy pool people have called water companies and, you might say, fibbed ever so deftly.

"After you talk to them a little bit, you figure out they're bluffing you," Linkins said. "We tell them if there isn't fresh dirt around the pool, we're not dropping the water."

Still, creativity has come in many other forms.

"One customer told me, 'There was an act of God that happened--I got an inch more water in my pool overnight,' " said Sherri McConnell, of McConnell Pool & Fuel Inc., another water-hauling firm, based in White Plains. "I said, 'Don't tell me!' "

Pool companies say people do not have to resort to these sneaky tactics--that chemicals will help and that many pool filter systems can be rigged for a stretch of several weeks.

"It's going to take some creativity and things of that sort, and there will be a little bit of dirt you can't get out, but, by and large, you will be able keep the pool going," said Steve Peters, operations manager at Browning Pool & Spa in Germantown.

But water envy is clearly growing.

Patricia Darling, of Darling and Daughters in Frederick County, said that when her company's trucks have delivered loads of water to newly built pools, vigilantes have tried to intervene.

"They have jumped on the sides of the truck," she said. "They have threatened the drivers."

In one case, she said, a man pulled his car in front of a water truck and proclaimed: "You're not allowed to do this. Don't move; you're under arrest." She observed: "You need to know what you're talking about before you go threatening people."

The surest way to get around the pool restriction, of course, is to be granted an official exemption, for health, safety or economic reasons. So far, two have been given in Montgomery County, for medical reasons. No one has applied in Prince George's County.

One exception was for a Bethesda woman in her seventies with osteoarthritis who said she needed to use her pool "for the exercise that my doctor insists that I get." It took 19 phone calls before she figured out how to apply, she noted. But now she is recycling water in every other way she can. "We are conserving water like mad," she said.

For those not so lucky, there was great frustration that state restrictions rule against pools but allow other activities that some people value less.

"A lot of my customers say, 'I would rather put water in my pool and make my kids happy than water my grass and water my bushes,' " said Wagner, of the Poolesville pool company. "Why can't people choose: Let their flowers die, let their grass come back next year and keep the kids happy?"

David Stempler, 51, a pool owner in Potomac, thought he'd found a solution that involved neither cheating nor importing. "We were thinking of the bottled water technique," he admitted.

But then he considered the expense: It takes 250 gallons to top off the average pool, about a half-hour of running water, one expert estimated.

"I guess we're probably just out of commission," he sighed. "This is not the greatest hardship of mankind."

Elsewhere, the giving in was not quite as easy.

One Potomac mother said she had been planning her son's engagement party for months--a formal celebration at the side of her glistening pool, 75 guests, lush arrangements of exotic flowers.

Now, her roses are dead. Every day, she replaces gardenias and jasmine that have wilted beyond recovery. But her great worry is her big blue pool. Every day, every night, she watches the water level, fearing the moment when the skimmer will stop working and algae will set in.

"I'm freaking," she said several days before the big party. "I don't care about the lawn. But the pool. The party is based all around the pool. We've spent a fortune. We have relatives coming in from Europe."

The first day of restrictions, she said, she was so mournful she dumped bottles of Polar water and Evian in her pool. Another day, she was fretting at poolside with a glass of drinking water in her hand when she suddenly eyed her own glass.

With a tip, she poured it into the pool and grabbed a Coke instead.

"I feel guilty," she said, asking not to be named. "I know some people are really going to be running out of water to bathe and take care of children and drink--and I am thinking of a party. God, forgive me. But I am worried."

Elsewhere in the Potomac neighborhood of stately houses with long rolling lawns, people regarded the stakes of the water crisis with less desperation.

"If the pool needs to be topped off with some water, it probably will," said Monte Gingery, 41, skeptical about the need for the restrictions.

Just around the corner, Jeff Dierman, a shopping-center developer, was willing to call it a summer and give up his pool. "We've been at the beach," he said, "and my son is going to camp."