- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2001

Regional environmental officials yesterday said theres nearly a one-in-four chance that the Washington area will see a repeat of releases from reservoirs into the Potomac River this summer an action that first took place during the drought of 1999.
"We need some rain and Im hoping the long-range forecast of normal rainfall is right," said Stuart A. Freudberg, director of environmental programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
But rainfall since April 18 has been meager in the District, Maryland and Virginia, with most areas seeing no more than unmeasurable traces until Tuesday night and early yesterday morning, when rain gauges at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport recorded, respectively, .04 inches and .03 inches.
Drought indicators such as soil moisture and groundwater levels are only slightly below medians in the Washington region. River flows which are highly volatile and dependent on recent precipitation are low, with the Potomac running at just about 40 percent of its average volume for the date at Little Falls.
If flows do not improve in the Potomac — from which the region draws 90 percent of the water it uses — local governments are prepared to offer a more uniform approach in managing the resource than in 1999.
In August of that year, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening restricted water use statewide and threatened to sanction violators, while D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III called for voluntary conservation.
Few Virginia local governments imposed any restrictions, and irritation grew across the Potomac as lawns and plants withered in Maryland while D.C. and Virginia residents were free to use water at will.
The Council of Governments outlook report issued yesterday marked the first use of a plan its board approved in June to ensure greater consistency and regional harmony in managing shared water resources.
The plan consists of a year-round "wise water use" public-information program and four defined drought-condition levels that trigger specific responses.
The region is still at "normal" levels, which call for wise water use.
A moderate drought would trigger a "watch," accompanied by the issue of voluntary conservation tips and announcement of the first reservoir releases.
Although the drought of 1999 was the third-worst on record, it did not exceed the moderate drought level in the Washington region. Far Western Maryland and central Virginia are in a moderate drought now and parts of Southwest Virginia are in severe drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Council of Governments would issue a drought "warning" and voluntary water-use restrictions if combined storage in Potomac River reservoirs goes below 60 percent for five consecutive days, or if there were a 5 percent probability of not meeting unrestricted demand over the next few months. The two Potomac reservoirs and one on the Patuxent River are now 100 percent full, while a third on the Occoquan River is 94 percent full.
Mandatory water restrictions would go into effect at the drought "emergency" level, triggered if reservoirs were just 25 percent full or there were a 50 percent chance that water demands could not be met over the next month.
A risk analysis of water-supply systems that provide 95 percent of demand in the Washington region indicates that the areas needs would be met even under the worst conditions that have been recorded.
Projections show the region should need no new reservoirs for about 20 years.


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