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Water Everywhere? Conserve Anyway

Despite rains, authority urges water conservation.

With a soggy spring and rain nearly every day, the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority's (LCSA) encouraging wise water use may seem like an “oddity,” said Samantha Villegas, LCSA communications manager. The new water conservation campaign comes at a time when the Potomac River is nearly 200 percent of its average flow.

“Water conservation needs to happen regardless of the weather,” Villegas said, adding that residents need to be in the habit of using water wisely, so that in drought conditions, they will not have to make any drastic behavior changes. “Saving today helps tomorrow. It’s as simple as that. Instead of saving money for a rainy day, well we’re saving water for a dry day.”

With the recent rains, the Potomac River flowed at 17 billion gallons on Tuesday and 21 billion gallons the day before, compared to an average daily flow of 7 billion gallons, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In April, the USGS reported the river flow at 19 billion gallons a day, 176 percent above the normal flow, and at 30.4 billion gallons in March, 196 percent above the normal flow, which in the summer months typically decreases.

"There's a lot of variability from day to day," said Erik Hagen, deputy director of the co-op section of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. "Since June 1, 2002, on average in the Potomac River Basin, the total rainfall has been eight inches above normal, which is great. That means the ground water levels are coming up. ... If we don't get much rain in the summer, we'll have plenty of ground water."

The ground water feeds the Potomac River and is a water source in the absence of rain. "We are likely looking at higher flows in the summertime," Hagen said, adding that the likelihood of having to make releases from the Jennings Randolph and Little Seneca reservoirs is low at 7 percent.

THREE MAJOR UTILITIES draw 600 million gallons a day from the Potomac River, including the Fairfax County Water Authority, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Washington Aqueduct Division. LCSA purchases water from the Fairfax County Water Authority and Fairfax City, which uses water from the Goose Creek Reservoir near Ashburn.

“We’re full in Goose Creek and Beaver Damn Reservoir,” Villegas said.

LCSA's involvement in the water use conservation campaign has its roots in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' (MWCOG) water supply task force following the 1999 drought. Thirty-four regional water utilities, plus the Maryland Department of Environment, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and MWCOG, organized a drought response plan for users of the Potomac River in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, particularly in Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland, suburban Prince Georgia’s County, Fairfax and Prince William counties, Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church.

The drought response plan provides triggers and plans for communicating information to the public on the four water stages of normal, drought watch, drought warning with voluntary water use restrictions, and emergency with mandatory restrictions. The drought watch in effect through most of 2002 has since ended with winter snowstorms and spring rains returning the area to normal conditions.

INCLUDED IN THE DROUGHT response plan is a year-round wise water use conservation campaign. In 2000, public relation representatives from water authorities and utilities and other interested parties formed a subcommittee that in early 2001 conducted a telephone survey to gauge the level of awareness and understanding of wise water use.

“We found that by in large most people didn’t know what things used the most water,” Villegas said, explaining that some of the residents thought showers used more water than lawn watering and underestimated the number of gallons a person uses in a day, guessing 20 to 40 gallons when the actual daily use is 75 gallons a day.

The subcommittee developed a conservation campaign based on an existing campaign, "Water: Use It Wisely" that a Phoenix, Ariz. advertising firm assembled in the late 1990s for several towns, counties and water utilities in the Phoenix area. The subcommittee reviewed the campaign and altered it to fit the metropolitan area.

The campaign, which kicked off on May 15 and will last three years, seeks to appeal to all ages, uses bright colors in advertisements and is apolitical, leaving out any discussions as to why water should be used wisely with a focus on how, Villegas said. Campaign materials include brochures, posters and giveaways, along with television ads and advertisements on buses and trains to provide tips for wise water use.

The campaign is funded through a $75,000 grant from the U.S. EPA, $25,000 from the regional EPA and $5,000 or $7,500 from participating jurisdictions for a total of $200,000. The participating utilities and water authorities are funding some of the advertising in the areas they cover.

In 2006 once the campaign is completed, MWCOG along with utility public relation representatives will conduct a telephone survey for gauging the success of the program.