Is the rain too late?

BY SUSAN KIM | LISBON, Md. | October 21, 2002

"If we don't get recharge this winter, things could get dicey."

—Jay Prager

Want to bring rain? Schedule a drought meeting.

Even as western Maryland residents huddled with state environmental and county health officials over the weekend to talk about drought, rain was gently pattering the windows of the meeting hall in the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Department.

But it might be too late, and it might be too little.

Water supply experts said that, if winter doesn't bring significant rainfall to the mid-Atlantic, Maryland and other states could face an even tighter water supply and even more stringent water restrictions.

At certain points during the summer, the city of Frederick, Md. was down to a 30-day supply of water.

Since then this month has been the first to bring above-average rainfall to the region, and last week's rainfall alone brought many Maryland reservoirs up two feet. If that trend doesn't continue, water will dwindle even more sharply next year.

"If we don't get recharge this winter, things could get dicey," said Jay Prager, chief of on-site sewerage and water supply for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

This year Howard County, Md. lost 43 wells to the drought. In every case, residents were able to dig replacement wells, said Frank Skinner of the Howard County Department of Health.

In neighboring Carroll County, the situation was worse: 100 wells had to be re-drilled in the month of August alone.

In some cases, the lost wells were the kind that water and health officials are glad to see go -- older, more shallow wells that not only yield less but are more likely to take in contaminants.

"Now wells have to pass more stringent yield tests," explained Skinner.

The state of Maryland requires wells to be 200-300 feet deep. Western Maryland's geology -- full of underground rock -- makes shallow wells a risky venture during a drought.

To bear water, a well needs to intercept water-bearing fractures in underground rock, explained Skinner. "The more water-bearing fractures you intercept, the better. Picture it like drilling through a sponge."

Shallow wells may intercept only one water-bearing fracture -- and when the water table drops as a result of drought those wells tend to go dry. Those with deeper wells may be able to lower the pump in the well before digging a new one.

Deeper wells are also less apt to take in contaminants. In Maryland one of the biggest contaminant concerns is hydrocarbons resulting from leaking underground gasoline tanks.

Residents who see silt in their well water shouldn't necessarily assume they have contaminants, advised Skinner. "When a well is drilled it's a dirty process. A rotary ends up blowing mud and dirt and water back into cracks. It can take a year or more to work that silt out of your water."

This summer Maryland lost many wells that weren't considered substandard, pointed out Prager. "We lost a lot of wells we would rather not have lost," he said. "In Baltimore County a couple of properties lost their well before the property was occupied."

Which leads to the question: why is Maryland continuing to build new houses if people are worried about water supply? Lisbon is a largely rural area that is now seeing the creeping effects of suburban sprawl. New subdivisions seem to be springing up all over.

But long-time residents battling new development because of water supply might need to think of other reasons behind their fight, because residential use and individual wells simply don't have that big of an impact on water supply in a state where agricultural and industrial usage far outstrips household usage, said Prager. "Give the quantity of water in the sponge, the individual wells don't have that big of an impact on the sponge. It's rare for somebody to lose a well and not be able to replace it."

At least for now.

Since 1980, some 8,000 new wells have been dug in western Howard County.

Still, it can't hurt to conserve water, said Lyn Poorman, another water supply expert with the Maryland Department of Environment.

Maryland uses 94 gallons of water per capita per day, compared with the Virgin Islands, which uses 30 gallons. Idaho uses 175 gallons, Florida 128, and Ohio 65.

Nationally, outdoor water use represents 31 percent of all water usage.

Maryland's mandatory water restrictions -- many still in place despite October's rainfall -- have focused on outdoor usage, prohibiting people from watering their lawns or washing their cars.

Even with the drought, Marylanders have largely enjoyed cheap water, said Poorman.

"I'm on Baltimore City water supplies, and I pay $10 every two months," she said. "In the Virgin Islands, water is a precious commodity and it's very expensive."

Many in Maryland and across the U.S. fail to treat water as a commodity, she said. "Nationally, 14 percent of all household water use goes to leaks," she said, adding that about 26 percent goes to toilets and 22 percent goes to clothes washers.

There are simple things people can do to conserve water -- such as replacing older showerheads with newer, water-saving models. "A typical older showerhead uses 5-6 gallons per minute," said Poorman. "A low-flow one uses about 2.5 gallons."

People should also consider purchasing water-efficient appliances if they are replacing old dishwashers, clothes washers, and faucets.

And, Poorman said, don't forget to turn the water off while brushing your teeth. "Brushing your teeth with the water on uses 16 gallons. Brushing them with the water off uses only four gallons.

"And washing your sidewalk uses 50 gallons. Sweeping it uses zero."

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