Mid-Atlantic drought intensifies

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | March 6, 2002

"I think people should be changing their water consumption habits regardless of the drought."

—Tom Miller

"Drought is like the stock

market. Once it makes the front page it usually goes in

the other direction," said Eugene Rasmusson, a research

scientist of meteorology and professor emeritus of

University of Maryland.

A lot of the East Coast faces a drought right now. By

the time people pay attention, will it be over?

This one could give a nasty bite to an unaware public

because it's not a run-of-the-mill dry spell. It really

began to crank up in early autumn and has continued

through the winter, said Rasmusson.

Usually drought intensifies during warmer months and,

during the cooler seasons when demand for water isn't at

its highest, reservoirs and streams have a chance to

refill. Only that hasn't happened this winter.

Rain -- about an inch and half -- did blanket some of

the mid-Atlantic over the weekend. "That begins to

help," said Rasmusson. "If we were to start getting

spring rains now, we may be okay."

But a little rain can be the worst thing when it comes

to public perception, said Tom Miller, Maryland

Cooperative Extension regional specialist for water

quality. "Right away everybody thinks everything is


And Miller wonders: even if it is okay, why can't people

conserve water? "I think people should be changing their

water consumption habits regardless of the drought," he

said. "It's scary when you think the general public is


That means simple things like turning off the faucet

while using a toothbrush -- because up to 10 gallons of

water can go unused down the drain.

Farmers are among the most aware. As they gear up to

plant their crops, they're weighing whether or not to

irrigate, whether or not enough rain will fall to grow

non-irrigated crops at all. "Farmers may decide not to

plant certain fields," explained Doug Parker, assistant

professor of agriculture and resource economics at the

University of Maryland.

But the general public won't look up until they're

slapped with water restrictions. "Nobody pays much

attention, then they panic," mused Rasmusson.

What's the problem with public perception of drought?

Defining drought is difficult and often complex. There

are many levels of drought, and at least one region of

the U.S. undergoes some level of drought all the time.

"There are all sorts of droughts," said Rasmusson.

Today, drought maps highlight the East Coast but a year

or two ago the mid-west looked grim.

Drought can be broadly defined in two categories:

agricultural drought and hydrological drought.

Agricultural drought can be alleviated more quickly,

Rasmusson explained, because farmers just need enough

moisture in the soil for their crops.

Hydrological drought -- which the Baltimore area is

currently facing -- develops slower "but it takes a

longer time to get back to normal," said Rasmusson.

Add in increasing population pressures in Baltimore and

other urban areas, and you have reservoirs that are 80

percent below normal levels. Maryland Gov. Parris

Glendening is so concerned he might declare a drought

emergency for parts of his state.

Another problem with getting the public to pay attention

to drought is that it's not as dramatic and sudden as

other disasters. Yet if drought isn't as dramatic as a

tornado, sometimes it seems nearly as localized as one.

"We're not really hurting in D.C. but Baltimore is,"

said Rasmusson.

And Rasmusson added that drought can be disastrous even

though its onset is quiet and creeping. "My first decade

of life was in Kansas in the 1930s in the dust bowl.

Drought can be a disaster," he said.

If water restrictions are mandated this spring and

summer, businesses such as car washes could obviously

take a financial hit. But drought is costly in less

visible ways as well. Anyone who works in fields related

to plants and landscaping could feel the economic impact

of a drought, pointed out Parker.

"Maryland has a large horticulture industry. Plant

growing is part of it and the labor associated with

landscaping is a part of it. So landscapers themselves

could lose their jobs."

Cities may have to spend more time -- and money --

cleaning water because when reservoirs get low, water

quality dips. "When the Potomac gets low, the amount of

chlorine smell in my water goes up," said Parker.

Some Baltimore streams and reservoirs are at levels not

seen since the mid- 1960s - "the granddaddy of an East

Coast drought that lasted on and off for three years,"

said Rasmusson. "By the time that ended water supply was

really hurting."

The last time the mid-Atlantic saw significant water

restrictions was 1999, a drought Rasmusson said created

a lot of controversy but resulted in better drought

preparation overall. "I think local governments will

send fewer conflicting messages."

During the 1999 water restrictions, Miller added he was

really pleased with people's response. But - "I was

afraid it was only going to last until restrictions were

lifted. And that appears to be the case."

People don't conserve water because they think they

don't have to, he said. "People that grew up on wells

have a little more respect for it, especially shallow

hand dug wells. But those people are mostly in nursing

homes now."

But if people don't conserve, one day we'll turn on our

faucets and no water will come, he said. "It will happen

one day. We could be in serious trouble."

Water Conservation Do's and Don'ts

Adapted from the New York City Department of

Environmental Protection

An average person's water use per day is between 60 and

148 gallons. Below, some do's and don'ts for water


The Do's ---

DO repair leaky plumbing (a slow drip wastes 15 to 20

gallons each day).

DO turn faucets off tightly.

DO install water-efficient faucets and showerheads.

DO shorten showers (saves five to seven gallons of water

a minute).

DO fill the bathtub halfway (saves 10-15 gallons).

DO shut off the water while shaving or brushing teeth.

Faucets use 2 to 3 gallons a minute. And up to 75

percent of all residential water use occurs in the


DO run dishwashers and clothes washers only when they're

full. Use short cycles.

DO install water-saving toilets, showerheads, and faucet


DO place a plastic bottle filled with water in the

toilet tank (for residents who can't switch to a low

flow toilet).

DO use a self-closing nozzle on your hose.

The Don'ts ---

DON'T use the toilet as a wastebasket, and don't flush

it unnecessarily.

DON'T let the water run while washing dishes. Kitchen

faucets use 2 to 3 gallons a minute. Filling a basin

only takes 10 gallons to wash and rinse.

DON'T run water to make it cold. Have it chilled in the

refrigerator, ready to drink

DON'T open fire hydrants.

DON'T water your sidewalk or driveway -- sweep them


DON'T over water lawns or plants. Water before 9 a.m. or

after 7 p.m.

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