Drought worsens, affecting color of cars, size of crops

As rains fall short, East Coast states roll out stringent water-conservation rules.

It's back to dirty cars, beige lawns, and no water on the table at the local pizza joint.

Yes, drought restrictions – removed in many places in June – are returning. A dry and hot July and August, without much precipitation, is forcing states and communities from Georgia to New York to reinstate water-conservation measures.

This could mean bans on watering the lawn and washing the car. Public officials are cranking up campaigns to remind homeowners to take shorter showers and use fewer dishwasher cycles. And forget about topping off the swimming pool or letting the kids run through the sprinkler system. Even the golf courses will have to let the fairways become rock hard, which may ultimately help some duffers' scores as they get extra yardage.

The new restrictions come at one of the driest points of the year: early fall. Last week, in fact, the National Weather Service warned that the drought appears to be getting worse.

Forecasters say a significant portion of the East Coast is now in either an "exceptional" or "severe" drought condition, the two worst categories. In New York, for example, over the past month there has been only 1.7 inches of rain, compared with a normal 4.22 inches. For the year, the region is down about 19 inches.

New York's huge reservoir system is now down about 17 percent from normal and dropping by 2 billion gallons per day. "We could sure use a hurricane or tropical storm – without any property damage or deaths," says Chris Roberts, a spokesman for the Delaware River Basin Commission, which manages the water flow.

Unfortunately, the parched East is not the only region in trouble. Almost half the nation is in some form of drought.

After the past four years, the nation is short about 8 inches of rain. "In terms of gallons, that's bigger than a couple of the Great Lakes," says Richard Tinker, a drought specialist at the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Spring, Md.

Return of the El Niño effect

Mr. Tinker says the outlook for rain is not very encouraging. An El Niño event has developed in the Pacific Ocean, which usually means a change in the current that runs along the west coast of South America. "It favors drier-than-normal conditions for the fall for the mid-Atlantic and lower New England," says Tinker.

Faced with that prospect, states and communities are starting to take action. On Tuesday, New Jersey, which had eased restrictions in June, returned to them. "With current water demand at its highest peak and water supplies declining every day, we have to act immediately and aggressively," says Bradley Campbell, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

By the end of September, the state has asked water suppliers to analyze the economic impact of cutting back water usage by 20 percent. Also, non-agricultural commercial users are being asked to draw up plans for reductions of 10 to 50 percent.

Water conservation is also the word in Virginia, where the drought is searing crops and drying up streams. Starting Aug. 27, Richmond residents will no longer be allowed to wash their cars, water lawns, or rinse down pavements on Mondays. The rest of the week will be on an even-odd basis, depending on street address. City fountains will be turned off, and restaurants will serve water only on demand.

"It's the first time a mandatory water program has gone into effect in at least 40 years," says Linwood Norman, a spokesman for the city manager.

Plugging water wastage

City residents knew they were headed for restrictions as they watched the James River slowly dry up. "People are normally tubing or white-water-rafting down the river," says Mr. Norman. "But now, we're seeing sandbars and rocks they've never seen before."

Many residents using well water have had to husband their resources carefully. That's the case in Riegelsville, Pa., where Ken Simmons and his wife, Sue, check the level of their well daily.

To save water, Mr. Simmons gave up watering his zucchini, cucumbers, and beans. Recently, he inspected his raspberry bushes. "Looks like there won't be much of a second crop," he says.

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