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MD town faces drought

BY RACHEL CLARK | FREDERICK, Md. | September 26, 2002

"What this does for next year -- it's too early to say."

—Romey Brooks

Frederick County, Md., is in the midst of a severe drought. Before the end of October -- unless rain permeates the agricultural area -- the city will run out of water. The effects of the drought are many.

Forecasters are hoping that outer rain bands from Tropical Storm Isidore will bring four inches of rain to the area.

The lack of moisture is affecting faith-based groups who use construction as part of their ministry especially hard. New home construction has been restricted for the past seven months in the light of water-conservation measures. No one is allowed to water their lawns or wash their cars, and even gardens have fallen to the lack of water.

Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland, a group that constructs and rehabilitates housing for low-income families, has had to cease construction of a new 12-unit apartment building in the Frederick area.

"We've had a rental property conserve on the water and there is also a project that we had in the making that has been put on hold because of the drought," said Katrina Hill, executive assistant with the organization.

For the moment, Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County is not affected.

"We are renovating two projects in the city of Frederick, but we got our permits before the water restrictions went into effect," said Romey Brooks, spokesperson for the group. "What this does for next year -- it's too early to say."

The Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs in Frederick is also holding up under the weight of the drought. Since they began construction on their new cold-weather shelter before water-use restrictions were enforced, their opening goal of November will likely be met.

"It was a long time in the works," said Linda, a secretary from the group. "But they started on that before the drought really hit. It's a really helpful project."

Earlier this summer -- when temperatures skyrocketed -- the coalition handed out fans to families in the area who were most susceptible to heat.

In addition to affecting construction, the drought is also having a direct environmental impact on the area.

"In terms of water quality, the drought has been incredibly good," said Dr. Gary Felton, assistant professor and extension specialist for bioenvironmental engineering and water quality at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

According to Felton, major environmental concerns include the sediment and nutrients that haven't moved into the water system near Frederick. Because they have remained where they are, the water -- while quickly diminishing -- has been very pure.

"When we get our first big rain, there's going to be one heck of a slug of sediment and nutrients that goes into the water," he said. "If it's going to be at all warm, there's a potential for one big water algae bloom."

These types of blooms can cause serious health dangers for animals who live in the water as well as humans who drink the water.

To avoid a large movement of sediment and nutrients, several soft, gentle rains are needed. But with the remnants of several serious tropical storms expected to pass through the Frederick area early fall, soft rains are not likely to come. And there are more than just health risks the dwindling and stagnant water poses.

"Having a big slug of sediment will cause the water to taste musty or old," Felton said. "If you're getting water from a municipality such as Baltimore or Washington, the health risks won't be that noticeable, but that taste will be different."

When a large mass of nutrients arrives in a water supply, it disrupts the entire life cycle of the ecosystem.

"The smaller the creature, the quicker it can claim nutrients," Felton said. "So microbes and algae grow profusely, and that's what you call an algae bloom."

The bloom blocks sunlight from getting through to plants and creatures who live at the bottom of a water supply. When microbes and algae die off, they decay and claim the oxygen in the water, which drives fish away from the affected area.

"The things that dwell on the bottom, like oysters, clams, worms ... all the living creatures that are stuck and can't move, it makes them in very poor health and kills them so it affects permanently that part of the ecosystem."

These life cycle disruptions affect the area economically as well. If floor-dwelling creatures die off, the harvest of food like oysters, crabs and commercial fish is reduced.

"The crab harvest is at an all-time low. And so is that the only cause of that all-time low?" Felton said. "I don't know, but that is certainly a contributing factor."

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