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COLUMN

How to Keep The Water Flowing

Conservation Methods Best Way to Insure Future Supplies

Michael J. Ring

Water, water everywhere -- and not a drop to drink.

Or use to wash your car.

Or water your lawn.

The water ban -- an annual rite of summer in many suburban communities -- has hit especially viciously this year as much of the eastern United States remains mired in a drought.

Cities, towns and counties up and down the coastline have been sniping at each other over shared water resources. But nowhere has the battle become more dramatic than in the area surrounding Washington, D. C., where a feud over one of nature’s simplest and most precious resources has turned two state governments against each other, locked in a bitter battle that could well end up in court.

While both Maryland and Virginia were severely impacted by the lack of rainfall this summer, the two states took very different actions in the face of the drought. Maryland imposed harsh restrictions on outdoor water use. Northern Virginia shunned such restrictions, instead choosing to tap the Washington, D.C. area reservoirs to meet high demand. The dichotomy of policy quickly sparked a nasty spat of namecalling -- Maryland officials calling Virginia’s tactics shortsighted and greedy, and one Fairfax (Virginia) Water Authority official calling Maryland’s water ban “unnecessary and harmful.”

The enmity felt in Maryland over the refusal of officials in Northern Virginia to impose a water ban only boiled further when Fairfax County attempted to replace a drinking water intake pipe at the bottom of the Potomac River. Maryland, which has jurisdiction over the Potomac, rejected Fairfax County’s permit application. Virginia’s attorney general threatens to pursue the controversy in court.

The communities around Washington, D. C. will have to make some unappetizing choices regarding their use of water, particularly since some officials believe the Washington metropolitan area could run out of water in the case of a severe drought by 2035. Maryland, Virginia, and the District are going to have to devise regional solutions to their water woes. Whether those solutions include building another reservoir, placing new controls on development, importing water from elsewhere, or living with permanent restrictions on usage, the solution to the present and future Mid-Atlantic water shortage will involve either, or more likely both, cost increases and headaches for water consumers.

While the watery quagmire faced by the two Mid-Atlantic states may be an extreme case, it is just an extension of the neighbor-versus-neighbor imbroglios always certain to surface in times of water bans. Just think of Virginia as the scofflaw flouting the town fathers’ promulgation, and Maryland as the neighbor who dropped the dime. Suburban sprawl across the nation has already guaranteed Maryland’s and Virginia’s problem is not isolated.

For most communities, building reservoirs will not be a practical answer to water shortages. A sizeable reservoir simply takes up too much land, displaces too many people, and costs too much money to be feasible in most circumstances.

The importation of water may not be an option in the future as well. As strains on local water supplies grow across the nation (and the world), communities with surplus water today will have shortages of their own in the future. And locales still possessing excess water will be more reluctant to export their precious resource.

Desalinization remains an intriguing option. Given the sheer size of the oceans, there would be no shortage there of water for human activities. But without further technological advances, the cost of such plants may be prohibitive.

Ultimately, the answer to our water crunches is going to have to be conservation. With the vast majority of the world’s water supply locked in the salty ocean or icy glaciers, there’s only so much fresh, liquid water to go around.

Activities such as laundry and dishwashing will need to be done after dusk, when demand for water is lessened. Given the horrendously long schedules many people work, that won’t be a problem.

The artificially-landscaped green of suburbia must cease in order to save water. Lawns are some of the thirstiest opponents in the effort to control the supply of water. The seemingly-endless expanse of grass lining wealthy suburban streets is unnatural anyway; trees and bushes fit much more naturally into the landscape and require much less water.

Summer car washes will need to be a little less frequent as well. There will always be some bird out there ready to use your automobile as its personal toilet. Get used to it.

Unless we’re all going to be at each others’ throats in the coming decades -- neighbor against neighbor, state against state, nation against nation -- it’s time to start thinking about conservation tactics. We need to adjust our gluttonous patterns of consumption and learn to live with a few new tricks. A little conservation will go a long way.