MARY ELLEN MILLER is eating her lunch picnic-style with paper plates and cups. But she's not out under the oak and maple. She's in her kitchen where the three other members of her family are dining à la Chinette to save water normally used to wash dishes. So, too, is Lucky, the family dog.
"I call it camping in my own house," she says.
What's happening to Mrs. Miller and her family is being replayed up and down the East Coast as localized areas of the region cope with the worst winter drought since the 1930s.
Homeowners are busy fixing leaky faucets, putting off washing the family car, and, in thrifty moments like Miller's, choosing Styrofoam over stemware at the dinner table.
From Maine to Georgia, states and localities are forming task forces to figure out ways to encourage and force conservation. One familiar sight: the return of the dreaded water "police," who ticket people for overwatering lawns or otherwise turning on the tap too much.
Going into the spring, the water levels in some places are as much as 50 percent from where they normally are before summer starts to increase demand. The drought has been around for at least 18 months, but has deepened since September. "It's as if we missed out on a year of rain," says Frank Richards, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Washington.
The lack of water is particularly painful for those who use wells, because it can take some time for water to percolate up to the level where it can be pumped to the surface. In some cases, the underground aquifers aren't yielding much water at all.
Residents of Upper Pottsgrove can attest to that. Immediately after the state declared a drought emergency, the town of 4,102 declared its own, which is reinforced every seven days. "We wanted to have it in place in case there is financial assistance available," says David Paulsen, township manager.
The state and township restrictions mean that homeowners are not allowed to water their lawns, the little league field will turn brown and hard this summer, and the fairways at the Twin Ponds golf course may look more like they belong in Abu Dhabi. Most residents are resigned to dirty cars, and the township is asking people to hold off on filling their pools for the summer.
"June, July, and August could be killers for us," says Julie Lyn Gallisdorfer, a local commissioner.
She now has a garage loaded with water donated by Wal-Mart to help senior citizens, and she's asking other food stores and companies to pitch-in. "We have a lot of seniors on fixed incomes, and the state officials have to realize the municipalities are going to need assistance," she says.
A three traffic-light town
While fickle weather is largely to blame for the lack of water here, so, too, is growth. Upper Pottsgrove is a scenic bedroom community one hour from Philadelphia, where roads curve through wooded hills and ridges.
Houses built in the 1950s are sprinkled among newer subdivisions erected in the 1980s by developers who wanted to provide moderately-priced middle class housing. Residents are proud of a the Currier and Ives feel of the town, where they only have three traffic lights to navigate and where one of the restaurants is an inn dating back to the 1840s.
Yet, in one of the town's many subdivisions, Regal Oaks, residents are now trying to adapt to the era of limits. Brian and Shawnn Blymiller have stopped using their own washing machines, driving to a laundromat instead. Like many residents, they've made one of the ultimate personal sacrifices only flushing their toilets when they need to.
Not far away, Janet Schreiber has a collection of buckets poised underneath the rain spouts of her house. She uses the rain water for her plants. "We'd like to water but we can't," she says. She limits herself to one load of laundry per day, a challenge with an active young son, Dustin, prone to grass stains.
The Millers, who live up a hill, are probably the worst effected in the subdivision. Almost daily, Miller drops a small stone down her well and times how long it takes to hit the water.
Last fall, the wait became so interminable that, after burning out two pumps, the family started spending its savings on trucking in water. She estimates they have spent $1,200 to $1,300 through the winter on their water supplies.
"Our son is getting married, and we'd love to be able to help out with the wedding, but all our money is going to water," she says.
And the Millers are careful with their usage. She gets up early to shower at her father's house, where she also does the family laundry. He lives a few miles away in a town that has more water.
From her dad's place, she also periodically lugs as many as 19 jugs of water to use for flushing the toilet and brushing teeth. When they do have enough water in their well for a shower, she calls it a "spit shine."
Tawny year for lawns
A few houses away, Ryan Fitzpatrick, a professional landscaper, is fertilizing a lawn. Under state law, he's allowed to use water as long as it's done in a manner "that ensures effective conservation." If the drought continues, he estimates it will cut into his business by as much as 30 percent. "You can't spread your weed killer," he says. "The customers will be upset."
Private water companies, too, are watching the drought with concern. The Superior Water Co. supplies 1,500 area residents from deep aquifers. So far, it hasn't had any trouble meeting demand. But that could change. "If there is no rain this summer, it will have an impact on us next summer," says Dave Milan, the chief executive officer.
One place where business is booming is at C.S. Garber & Sons, which drills and deepens wells. Last year, the company bored 40 "emergency" wells as families ran out of water. They've drilled 60 so far this year. "We've never experienced it this bad this early in the year," says John Reed, a manager.
Just how dire things have become is evident from one family's experience in nearby Hanover. Even with four wells, they can't do two loads of laundry back-to-back. Consequently, the family is now talking about deepening one of the wells and fracturing the granite rocks to get more water.
"I feel really bad when they spend all that money and don't get much water," says Mr. Reed.