Drought Makes Neighbors Water-Use Spies
Few residents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have read - or can understand - the new drought restrictions, and few authorities are enforcing them.
Still, in communities across the region, sprinkler spies already are calling out their scofflaw neighbors.
And Philadelphia is trying to get out of the rules entirely.
Despite the daunting bureaucratic jargon of the water restrictions - 2,545 words long in Pennsylvania; 3,961 in New Jersey - residents and law-enforcement authorities are starting to pay attention. The current hot weather is prompting many to think of swimming pools and lawn care, and they want to know what they can and can't do.
Short version: You can't water your lawn, unless it's new sod or seed, and then only in the evening and early morning. Gardens can be watered, with certain restrictions. The question of filling pools is more complicated; in Pennsylvania, it is up to the local water company.
"We've had countless calls from people," said Tina Boor, business manager for the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority. "Most people have been pretty understanding."
Horsham is one town where filling pools is not allowed, in most cases. Portions of Delaware County are in the same boat. New Jerseyans, on the other hand, can "top off" pools that were partly drained for the winter; empty pools can be filled only in certain cases.
The alternative? Would-be swimmers must have the water trucked in - a job that will set them back at least $260, said Jeff Neamand, owner of AquaSun Pools in Doylestown.
Pool-supply companies, municipal officials, water companies, state officials - all report a steady stream of calls from people seeking information.
However, if they are acting on the information and using less water, it is hard to tell on a statewide basis. Pennsylvania does not track overall water usage, although Kristen Wolf, a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, said "anecdotally, we have heard some good numbers" from water companies.
In New Jersey, Bradley Campbell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said water consumption was down about 5 percent. In March, Gov. McGreevey called for reductions of up to 30 percent.
Along with the flood of information seekers, local officials also are starting to experience the same phenomenon they saw during the drought of 1999: people calling to complain about their scofflaw neighbors. Enforcement has been limited.
Officials in 14 area communities, including Philadelphia, said they had not issued any tickets for violating water restrictions. Some said they had issued verbal warnings. Some said it was too early to see much lawn watering. Others said that although they welcomed information from neighbors, the tips did not always pan out.
In Philadelphia, officials contend water use should not be restricted because there is plenty of water in the Delaware River and the Schuylkill. City officials said they were negotiating with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Wolf, of the DEP, said the city had not filed a written request, which is required before an exemption can be granted.
In the meantime, restrictions remain in place for all of Southeastern Pennsylvania. But that doesn't mean everyone understands them.
Boor, the water-authority official, said most residents were told they could not fill or top off their pools. Exceptions are made for some, such as those who had a new pool built and signed the contract before the restrictions were announced in mid-March, Boor said. If new pools are not filled with water immediately, the plaster doesn't cure properly.
Some of the confusion about water restrictions may be because the rules are so long. Responding to such concerns, Pennsylvania issued a news release Monday attempting to simplify the rules.
For example, sample of the rules states:
"If residents wash their vehicles at home, they should do so with buckets or by handheld hose equipped with an automatic shutoff nozzle for prerinse and rinse, not to exceed a total of two minutes spray time. Water use for vehicle washing is limited to odd street addresses on first and third [Saturdays] of the month, while people with even addresses or no street address can wash on the second and fourth [Saturdays] of the month."