Area officials, residents watchful of water shortages
Feb. 27, 2002
Ellen Shiau
Staff Writer

The Potomac River set a record daily low Tuesday with a flow more than 85 percent below normal for this time in February, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

The measurement taken at the Little Falls pump station, about one mile upstream from the Washington, D.C., line, was the lowest on record for Feb. 26 for at least 30 years, said hydrologist Wendy McPherson.

"The data is showing us that things are bad," McPherson said.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which coordinates the drought plan for area water utilities including the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, issued a drought watch announcement last week for the entire Washington area. That announcement followed one last month by the Maryland Department of the Environment that moved the drought status for Montgomery County -- excluding areas served by the WSSC, which it does not evaluate -- from a watch to a warning stage.

The two agencies both use four stages to designate conditions: normal, watch, warning and emergency.

In addition, the groundwater level in a Montgomery County well observed by the U.S. Geological Survey set a record low in January, which means the level is lower than it was during the 1999 drought.

Rainfall for the Mid-Atlantic region has been down 9 to 12 inches for the past six months, which is about half of normal amounts, said meteorologist Richard Tinker of the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

McPherson said the region needs to see more than normal amounts of rain to recharge water supplies. The rain is also needed soon because growing plants and trees will be taking up what rain is available, she said. Current data show no reason to favor a wet, dry or normal forecast for the area from now until July, Tinker said.

Despite the unsettling data, area officials are cautious about sending residents into a panic.

"For 95 percent of the region [who obtain water from the Potomac River], the water supply is more than adequate," said Jim Shell, principal water resources planner for the Council of Governments. "It's not an issue of running out of water."

About 800,000 Montgomery County residents are served by the WSSC, which draws its water supply from the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, said WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown.

The City of Rockville, which also draws its water supply from the Potomac River, asked its residents Feb. 5 to begin conserving water.

Gaithersburg City Manager Dave Humpton said the city follows the same Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments guidelines for drought that the county follows.

The next stage, a warning would include voluntary water restrictions.

"When we get to the next stage, that's when the big issues come up," Humpton said.

The city imposed water restrictions in summer 1999 after the region fell under a drought warning. Under a warning the Gaithersburg City Council may impose restrictions on washing cars and watering lawns.

A few homes in the city may depend on wells for their water but most of the city receives water through the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, Humpton said.

The Washington region has two reservoirs on the Potomac River that contain more than 17 billion gallons of water that can be released if necessary. Shell said there is not even a remote chance that the reservoirs will be needed until July.

However, the Council of Governments and the state have encouraged residents to conserve water with tips such as repairing leaks, turning off the water while brushing teeth and running only full loads in dish and clothes washers.

"We're in good shape. The reservoirs are full," Shell said. "... But obviously it's dry, and there is a concern."

Shell said the drought notification stages and encouraging water conservation raises awareness about water resources and environmental issues, prepares residents for whatever may happen, and protects the existing structure for the future. Brown said conserving water also may avoid or delay the use of the reservoirs.

"Conserving water is always a good thing," Brown said.

However, officials agree that areas served by ground water systems or smaller water supply systems may be more vulnerable to drought.

"[The WSSC's] reservoir system has got a better stockpile than other systems," said John Verrico, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Poolesville Commissioner Eddie Kuhlman said his wife asked him to suds up her car last weekend for a wash. Despite the balmy weather, Kuhlman responded with an emphatic "No" -- not from idleness, of course, but because the roughly 5,000-person town that relies on a well system.

For now, Kuhlman said preliminary reports show that Poolesville's wells are at normal water levels and can meet existing demand.

But he said it's important to be mindful of the situation -- exactly what other area officials have been encouraging Montgomery County residents to do.

Poolesville Commissioner Tom Dillingham said he is concerned that the town, which has a history of imposing water moratoriums, will be in a drought this summer. The town's wells pumped about 19 hours a day in February to meet demand, which leaves only five hours left to draw more water as demand increases, Dillingham said.

"We have a limited supply of water," Dillingham said. "... We need about three hurricanes to come through here."

The town is currently awaiting word from the state on a permit that gives permission to place new wells online, which could alleviate potential water shortages, Dillingham said.

For now, Kuhlman said the town should be in good shape unless residents begin watering their flowers or washing their cars because of the nice weather.

"Right now, we do not need to be going out and lining up tankers to bring in water," Kuhlman said. "We just need to be everyday mindful of the situation."