Fearful of appearing less than heroic in the face of the drought, some Maryland officials have insisted on mandatory water restrictions for the Washington metropolitan area. These restrictions are unnecessary and harmful. Worse still, having climbed way out on that very shaky limb, these officials are now pressing their D.C. and Virginia counterparts to go along, for the same reasons and to provide much-needed cover.
To be sure, a severe drought is affecting much of the East. But as with most of nature's caprices, the effects are highly localized. Because of our geography, some pretty good engineering and planning, and the expenditure of a lot of water customers' money, the metropolitan area jurisdictions drawing water from the Potomac are in fact highly drought-resistant.
Outside the areas served by the three largest water utilities -- the Fairfax County Water Authority, the Washington Aqueduct and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission -- there are water shortages that make restrictions appropriate. Taking less water from the Potomac, however, benefits no one.
The reason is simple enough. Potomac River water comes to us strictly on a "use it or lose it" basis. Any gallon not withdrawn for drinking water is on its way to the Chesapeake Bay, where it becomes the proverbial drop in the ocean.
The environmental health of the river does require a certain volume, or "flowby," along its course, but that flowby is ensured by the same drinking water projects that have largely drought-proofed the area.
If necessary, releases from upstream reservoirs guarantee that the Potomac will maintain a volume that the drought might otherwise have denied it. With the river adequately protected, using less of its water does nothing to get it to where water is needed or to save it for a less rainy day.
Water restrictions make even less sense on the Virginia side. There the area served by the Fairfax County Water Authority, which includes most of Fairfax County as well as Alexandria and parts of Prince William, has an additional water source on the Occoquan. Even the occasional sparse rains we are getting are sufficient to help replenish that reservoir. In addition, the Occoquan is a semi-closed system. An advanced technology treatment plant recovers waste water for subsequent reuse. So in Northern Virginia, water is even recycled.
Nor is there any validity to the argument now being made that water restriction will maintain reserves in case the drought lasts a long, long time. Even in the middle of this drought, without restrictions, reservoir releases are needed only rarely. Last week, as during most of the summer, no releases were made at all.
So here we are with more than enough water in the reservoirs and more than enough to keep the river flowing, and restrictions are put in place.
Fall will inevitably be upon us soon, the trees will lose their leaves and end their active growing cycle, and then even meager rain will be sufficient to replenish the reservoirs to take us through another dry summer.
This leaves us with the "We're all in this together" argument, which must be of scant comfort to the car-wash workers whose income has been cut by the restrictions and to others inconvenienced in various ways.
Imposing restrictions where they are not needed for the sake of creating community smacks oddly of the "share the misery" system now largely deposed throughout Eastern Europe. As one of my colleagues on the Water Authority likes to observe, people don't need to practice being uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, the need for water restrictions is a matter of mathematics and engineering for professionals rather than one of public policy for politicians. Sometimes it really is better to just stand there and do nothing.
The writer is a member of the Fairfax County Water Authority. The views here are his own.