The sky has opened up, rain is falling, and forecasters say a steady patter should continue through the week. Tropical Storm Dennis is moving sluggishly Washington's way--maybe, just maybe, one of the two downpours the area needs to emerge from drought.
So is it time for a sigh of relief from the land of crispy lawns and increasingly short tempers? Not at all, say Maryland officials and reservoir gatekeepers with dominion over the Potomac River, who warn that only prolonged torrents of rain in just the right places will make a dent in the drought.
"This is still nowhere near what we need," said John Verrico, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "What people don't understand is that if things don't improve, we may need to make things even tighter."
Rain has brought more confusion than relief to the parched mid-Atlantic region, large parts of which are under mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history. A few days of rain have slightly swelled the Potomac, freshened a few dun-colored lawns and renewed calls from some quarters for Maryland officials to ease off on water restrictions.
Half the calls to the Maryland drought hot line yesterday were from residents wondering whether the cloudburst signaled the end of water restrictions. The association of Maryland golf course superintendents yesterday filed for relief from the limits so they can begin rehabilitating hundreds of dusty fairways. So have beleaguered sod farmers.
And homeowners, who in recent weeks have been weighing the risks of midnight sprinkling against the possibility of criminal sanctions, started wondering whether they would soon be allowed to legally water the hardscrabble outside the picture window formerly known as the front lawn.
"If this tropical storm comes through, we're all going to be questioning these rules. I mean, the state should lighten up a little," said Linda Ackerman, who has been watching $2,000 worth of new sod for her Potomac home dry up.
Earlier this month one of Ackerman's neighbors along Sleepy Hollow Lane, a loop of brick colonials and clapboard ranchers now the worse for wear after three weeks of water restrictions, received the first and only ticket handed out in Montgomery County for violating the first mandatory water restrictions in Maryland. Cost: $500.
"I'm at the point where the fine would be cheaper," Ackerman said. "But as long as it keeps coming from the sky at least my lawn is getting it."
Water agency officials say rain usually drives down use, though figures from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission show fluctuating demand during the seven days it's rained this month.
The administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) reported yesterday that water consumption last week dipped 13 percent below the five-year average for August. In the Washington suburbs, the WSSC reported a 14.7 percent decline, the highest in the state. Those efforts exceeded the governor's initial 10 percent goal and seem to have postponed any decision to tighten the restrictions.
But Glendening signaled in a statement yesterday that the mandatory restrictions would be in place for at least two more months.
"While the rainfall over the past few days means that we do not have to enact tighter restrictions in the immediate future, we must continue to be prudent," Glendening said.
Still, state officials were heartened yesterday by conservation efforts and by several water supply measures. They said stream flows improved slightly to 47 percent of normal flow, while rainfall remains about 12 inches below usual.
"The rain we've had in the past week has been average rain, so it's left us at the status quo," said Michael Morrill, Glendening's spokesman, adding that water use would probably decline further during this week's predicted storms. "It will help their plants, so they won't use water. I left my car out in the rain yesterday and it looks better."
To the southeast is a slim hope for long-term relief named Dennis, a tropical storm that passed over the Bahamas yesterday at a snail's pace of 8 mph.
Hydrologists say the Washington area needs rain from two tropical storms to emerge from drought, and even this one may not be much help: A dense cold front moving into the region from the north could block Dennis before it reaches the Potomac watershed.
Curtis Dalpra, spokesman for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, said the recent rainfall increased the river's flow by more than 50 percent. But he said the benefit was only temporary, because much of the rain fell in the wrong place.
In this area, rain must fall in the region above Great Falls for it to replenish the Potomac. "We did get a bump from the rain," Dalpra said. "But it can rain like crazy in the District and it won't make any difference to the river flow."
Dalpra said that without more rain, the region will again have to draw on the Jennings Randolph Reservoir in Western Maryland and possibly Little Seneca Reservoir in western Montgomery to ensure adequate river flow. Maybe soon.
"If this is all the rain we get for the next few days, the [supply] level will stabilize and then drop," he said. "We will be monitoring that because releases from Jennings Randolph need to be made eight days in advance."
But for some the rain only underscored the burden of mandatory restrictions. On the 10th fairway of the Glenn Dale Golf Club in Prince George's County, owner John Shields lamented the burned rough lining lush fairways, made of drought-tolerant Bermuda grass.
"The restrictions should have been questioned to begin with," said Shields, president of the Maryland Golf Course Association. "This was politically motivated. I suspect the rain will increase requests that they be lifted."
Staff writers Daniel LeDuc and Maria Glod contributed to this report.