Maryland residents would be limited to watering their lawns once a week and prohibited from washing their cars under restrictions that could be imposed as early as next week to counter the worst drought the state has endured in decades.
A special task forced convened by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) was discussing those restrictions yesterday, as residents throughout the Washington area were coming to grips with the fact that they must use less water. Many lawns are turning brown, and flowers and shrubs are beginning to wither. And for homeowners with green grass, there was guilt.
"I'm aware of the drought," said Lisa Curwin, as her sprinkler glistened her Potomac lawn for more than 40 minutes yesterday afternoon. "I feel somewhat guilty, but it's a new house with new planting, and I can't afford to let it go. I have to make a compromise," she said, pointing to her waterless back yard, which was "like straw."
Others were cutting back even further. Across the Potomac River -- which is flowing at only half its normal volume -- Dana Onks said he was not watering his grass after Fairfax County officials asked the public yesterday to voluntarily reduce water use.
"I'd rather have a green lawn," he said. "I'm watching my lawn totally fade away."
The mid-Atlantic had been especially hard hit this summer as a year-long lack of rain has shrunk rivers and lowered reservoirs. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) last week declared a drought emergency for 55 of the state's 67 counties including Philadelphia, instituting mandatory water restrictions that banned sprinklers and other unnecessary use of water.
In Virginia, a drought task force has been meeting regularly, although no statewide restrictions have been required. In Maryland, Glendening declared a drought emergency Thursday and urged the public to stop watering lawns and washing cars and to take shorter showers. He said a drought task force will report to him Tuesday with recommendations on making some restrictions mandatory.
Convening its first meeting yesterday, the Maryland task force considered options that included the once-a-week limitation on lawn watering and said, if necessary, the next step would be a total ban. It also is considering recommending that restaurants stop serving water to patrons unless they ask for it and mandating inspections of plumbing in public buildings to halt leaks.
While homeowners with new plantings or sod that require lots of water may be hardest hit by limits on watering, landscape experts said yesterday that reducing sprinkling wouldn't necessarily harm most yards or shrubs.
"People are watering every day, and they don't need to. They should cut back," said Jim Johnson, general manager of Johnson's Landscaping Service Inc. in Bethesda.
He said lawns thrive if they are watered twice a week for about a half hour, but that it should be done early in the morning before the sun's heat evaporates the moisture. Shrubs can be soaked once a week and be fine.
The Baltimore area appears harder hit by the drought. State officials estimate that the 1.8 million people in Baltimore and the surrounding counties have about 35-day supply of water left if current usage continues unabated and there's no rain.
The situation is better in the Washington area, according to officials of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. They said the utility has an adequate supply through November even if there is no more rain. That has made some WSSC customers, who pay among the nation's highest water rates, irate that they face restrictions
Already, Poolesville in Montgomery County has enacted mandatory restrictions. So have communities in Allegany, Calvert, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Washington and Wicomico counties. In Virginia, Loudoun County's restrictions on water use take effect tomorrow. Violators face fines of up to $500.
If homeowners are annoyed about browning grass, Maryland's farmers are anxious about their livelihoods.
"This is the worse I've ever seen it, ever," said Robert Lewis, who owns Lewis Orchards in Dickerson in Western Montgomery County. Ears of corn at his farm are so shriveled that he can't even give it away.
Glendening's emergency declaration provides $3 million in state aid for farmers and also allows them to apply for federal assistance.
Some communities in Virginia and Maryland had brief thundershowers yesterday, but experts said that they had little impact on the drought and that the forecast offered little relief.
"It's like putting a grain of sugar on your cereal and expecting it to be sweet," said National Weather Service meteorologist Steven Zubrick. "What you really need is a soaking rain lasting all day and all night." And based on current forecasts, he added, that would be "a fluke to occur in the next few weeks."
Staff writers Jennifer Lenhart and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.