Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday lifted the mandatory restrictions on water use he imposed less than a month ago, replacing them with a call for voluntary conservation as the state begins to show signs of emerging from severe drought.
Glendening (D) issued the executive order lifting the first mandatory conservation measures in Maryland history based on the unanimous recommendation of his drought advisory committee. But the governor said the state remains in a drought emergency, with stream flow, reservoir levels and rainfall still below normal in parts of the state as the region enters some of its historically driest months.
The order means Maryland residents may begin sprinkling lawns, topping off swimming pools and washing cars without fear of criminal sanctions. But Glendening urged residents to maintain the same conservation standards that reduced water use by 16 percent statewide, though he acknowledged there would likely be a spike in consumption over the next few days.
"We are no longer facing an immediate water crisis," Glendening said during a State House news conference. "I know that the last four weeks have been inconvenient for some and very, very difficult for others. We would not be lifting these restrictions if all Marylanders did not conserve water use."
The governor's decision means Maryland residents are expected to abide by the same voluntary limits on water use that are in place in the District and most of Virginia. Those jurisdictions never imposed mandatory limits, and the disparate response to the drought sparked a cross-border debate over how to manage the shared water resource, including the Potomac River, which supplies Washington and its suburbs.
But Northern Virginia water agency officials said Glendening ended the mandatory restrictions just as he began them -- motivated by politics. Indeed, since last week's drenching showers, the chorus of voices has risen sharply asking the governor to revisit rules that have left lawns parched, pools depleted and many businesses suffering.
"It was a political decision to start with, and it's a political decision to take them off," said James Warfield, executive officer of the Fairfax County Water Authority. "There's not a water supply crisis, and there never was one."
On Aug. 4, Glendening became the first governor in the mid-Atlantic region to impose statewide mandatory restrictions, and yesterday, he became one of the first to say those rules were no longer needed.
Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have yet to lift state-imposed mandatory water restrictions. And officials in Northern Virginia's Loudoun County said yesterday that its mandatory conservation measures would remain in place into the fall because of persistently low levels in a creek that serves as a prime source of the county's drinking water.
During an afternoon meeting, members of a Maryland drought committee said recent storms had boosted stream flows and reservoir levels. Across the state, stream flow is now 15 percent above normal, and the governor's advisers predicted that water demand would drop during the coming cooler months.
"Thank God for the rain," said Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger III (D), a drought committee member. "This whole drought situation was a wake-up call. We should never let ourselves get in this situation again."
But Glendening and other officials emphasized that Maryland still suffers from water shortages, and the governor's order reflected the state's uneven water supply. While Washington's Maryland suburbs have enough water in reservoirs to last eight months, the Baltimore metropolitan area supply would last about 120 days before water officials say silt and debris would begin creeping into pipes.
As a result, Glendening ordered Baltimore to continue drawing about 100 million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna River until the three reservoirs serving the 1.8 million Baltimore area residents improve. Those reservoirs are just over half-full, while reservoirs serving Washington and its suburbs are 78 percent full and the Potomac is running at 93 percent of its normal rate. Rainfall levels for the state are 9 inches below average for the last 12 months, though one big storm could make up the difference.
Glendening said local water agencies, especially those in central and Western Maryland where wells are quite depleted by drought, may decide to continue mandatory restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The state will remain in a drought emergency, he said, until stream flow, reservoir levels and rainfall all reach 70 percent of normal. He said mandatory restrictions would be reconsidered if reservoirs supplying one region fell below the 120-day benchmark.
The drought has wrought more that $100 million in damage to Maryland crops alone, helping make it the costliest ever for agriculture in the mid-Atlantic region. But it has struck the state differently, leaving some regions worse off than others.
In his executive order, Glendening lifted a ban on outdoor burning for all counties except four in Western Maryland, including Frederick. Officials said the ground was still too dry and the water table too low to permit burning.
Glendening said the drought committee would continue monitoring the water supply. Meanwhile, he said, he would work to develop a long-range conservation strategy, push water utilities to fix leaking pipes that waste water, and try to foster regional cooperation in managing shared water supplies.
"Water does not recognize state lines, county lines or any other boundaries," the governor said. "We must work together."
Staff writer Maria Glod contributed to this report.
CAPTION: RAIN SHORTFALL (This graphic was not available)