New Jersey closes its spigots as drought lingers

There are a lot of swimming pools, green lawns, and gardens in suburban Pequannock, N.J. But unless there is a lot of rain in the next few weeks, those lawns, gardens, and pools could be very dry this summer. ``Residents are not real happy,'' a Pequannock Township employee says of current water restrictions. They were put into effect in northern New Jersey on April 17 when Gov. Thomas Kean declared a drought emergency. Lawns, for example, cannot be watered unless newly sodded, and then only for one hour.

Nearby Newark, Paterson, and Elizabeth -- and, across the border, New York City -- could face their own predicaments, such as pressure problems that might keep water from the top floors of high-rises.

``We need 14 inches of rain to get back to normal,'' says Andrew McCarthy, a spokesman for New York City's Environmental Protection Department. The city issued a drought warning early this month. Looking at past rainfall records (May averages 5 inches), there is ``almost no chance'' the drought-stricken Catskill Mountains, from which 90 percent of the city's water comes, will receive the soaking that will bring reservoirs up to normal near capacity.

But in past water emergencies, Mr. McCarthy says, city residents have learned to conserve. And towns like Pequannock, which was hard hit during a 1980-81 drought, have worked to lessen their dependency on the reservoir systems by digging their own wells.

New Jersey's emergency regulations, which affect more than 2.3 million people in five counties, include bans on washing cars, except at commercial car washes; watering lawns and gardens; and washing streets, sidewalks, and driveways. Restaurants are not to serve water unless it is requested, and nonresidential facilities such as schools are asked to install flow restricters.

If the situation does not improve by mid-May, more restrictions could be imposed in northern New Jersey. And operators of local recreational facilities say a drought could hurt their summertime income.

New York City's drought warning, which also covers part of suburban Westchester County, currently means restrictions for government agencies. The city's Sanitation Department has been asked not to wash streets, and the New York City Transit Authority uses nonpotable water to clean buses and subway cars.

Mandatory restrictions for public and commercial use would come if the city declared a drought emergency. If water supplies do not increase soon, an emergency could be called sometime next month, McCarthy says.

Reservoirs in the Delaware River Basin Commission are at 60 percent capacity at a time when they are usually spilling over, Dawes Thompson of the commission says.

``We're in the ninth consecutive month of less-than-normal rainfall,'' Mr. Thompson says. Light snow this winter had little effect.

New York City's Environmental Protection Department is planning a television and radio campaign aimed at voluntary conservation in the home. Business use can be monitored by water meters, but most of the city's water use is in homes.

``Compliance was pretty good in the city'' in the last drought in 1980, McCarthy says. Water usage, which averaged around 1.5 billion gallons a day, dropped by 300 million gallons.

The city is also spending $2 million for 8,000 additional locks for fire hydrants. During hot weather last summer, the city had three days of ``water alerts'' when pressure became dangerously low. Water pressure drops during heavy use, and the opening of fire hydrants, usually by children in low-income neighborhoods, has long been a problem.

McCarthy says the locks, added to the 7,000 already in place, should virtually end the problem. Since many children live in areas far from recreational swimming pools, the city will install a special hydrant cap with holes in communities that request it. Far less water is used, but it still provides relief for the children, he says.

New Jersey's Pequannock Township has 13,500 residents in seven square miles, says Jay Wanczyk, assistant township manager. The town is preparing to send out copies of the state regulations. After the drought emergency in 1981, the city embarked on a project to reduce dependency on the Newark water system. By building their own water wells, Pequannock has done just that, Mr. Wanczyk says. Although the township is still connected to Newark supplies -- particularly for emergencies such as large fires -- it may request to be taken off the list of cities facing restrictions, he says.

``Water quality is one of our principal problems,'' says Mr. Thompson of the Delaware River Basin Commission, which provides much of the water in a four-state region that includes Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the New York City metropolitan area. If not enough fresh water flows downstream into the ocean estuary, salt water will creep upriver. It could affect drinking water and water used for industry as far upstream as Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., he says.

``We are going into the summer of 1985 in worse shape than any previous summer,'' Thompson says.

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