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Drought Brings Strict Rationing : ‘Every Drop’ Saved as N.Y. Water Shortage Worsens

Times Staff Writer

The brown and white sign stands in the middle of the George Washington Bridge, where motorists traveling between Manhattan and New Jersey can’t miss its urgent message.

“Because of water shortage, we are saving every drop,” it proclaims.

In Manhattan’s commercial buildings, air conditioning must now be turned off for two hours each morning to save water. New Yorkers may no longer water lawns, fill private swimming pools or use hoses to wash cars. The spray caps that reduce the flow of water from open hydrants to a fine mist so ghetto youngsters can cool off in sweltering heat are not being distributed this summer. Fifteen thousand city hydrants are locked and can be opened only by firemen using special wrenches.

For the first time in 20 years, New York City is considering adding water pumped from the upper Hudson River to its drinking supplies. Although the lower Hudson is polluted, environmental officials say that tests show water from higher up the Hudson to be perfectly safe--after it is chlorinated and diluted 1 to 9 with water from reservoirs.

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Four years ago, New York and New Jersey faced a similar drought emergency, which lasted a year before rain replenished reservoirs. But officials stress that the situation is potentially more serious this summer.

At the start of the summer of 1981, the 18 reservoirs serving New York City averaged 85% of capacity. On Friday, they were only 59.9% full--with the prospect of peak water consumption just ahead.

“We have a tremendous deficit,” said Andrew McCarthy, a spokesman for New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection. “The trend for the first half of this year has been for things to get worse and worse. I wouldn’t lay odds, but it is a probability that, by the end of the summer, we will have to bring in the Hudson River water.”

” . . . Conservation is more important now than in 20 years. Using the Hudson River allows us to stretch out the supply.”

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Pumping Station Tested

Engineers have been testing the city’s Chelsea pumping station, a green cinder-block building five miles south of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. If the station is activated, it will send river water to an aqueduct flowing into the Westchester County reservoir system north of New York City, where it will be treated and diluted.

Meteorologists say that a stubborn ridge of high pressure in the upper atmosphere last fall and winter blocked the storms that usually fill the reservoirs to capacity from reaching the New York-New Jersey area. And, the National Weather Service says, through July the outlook for rain is uncertain.

“We’re right in the middle of a messed-up national weather pattern,” said Jim Staples, an official of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, which also has declared a drought emergency.

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New Jersey has imposed statewide prohibitions on lawn watering, car washing and street cleaning, and 93 communities in the state are undergoing further rationing, with each resident allowed 50 gallons of water a day. Local water companies have been instructed to charge a $5 penalty for every 750 gallons of extra water consumed.

Business Water Bills Hiked

For non-residential customers, the water companies have raised bills by one third over the same period last year. If those customers reduce water use by 25%, the surcharge is erased.

Reservoirs serving New Jersey are now 73% full when they should be at 95% of capacity.

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“No one can give you an honest guess how long the drought will last. There are so many variables,” Staples said. “We have had a deficit of over a foot of water in the last year. People in California understand better than people here in the Northeast that a drought doesn’t mean no rain at all. It just means an inordinately low rainfall over a period of time.”

New York City’s residents consume about 1.3 billion gallons of water a day. About 60% is used in homes and the remainder in factories, businesses and office buildings. In commercial buildings, air-conditioning systems use water to collect heat and transfer it to rooftop towers, where about 5% of the water is evaporated each hour for cooling purposes.

Even before summer’s expected sizzle, the drought is fraying some nerves.

Most new office buildings have windows that cannot be opened, and they quickly become multistory saunas when the air conditioning is turned off to conserve water.

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Diners Must Request Water

In accordance with municipal regulations, restaurants no longer serve water with meals unless diners ask for it. When the water finally arrives, it is sometimes accompanied by an annoyed look from the waiter--especially in establishments with extensive wine lists.

Because of the drought, leaks and drips take on new importance. One day recently, Dana Nau Davis, a Brooklyn homeowner, tried to stop a drip in a shower with obsolete parts by summoning two plumbers, one after the other. After the second plumber had attacked the problem, the drip was slowed but not stopped.

“I feel irresponsible. I don’t feel the water shortage can be solved unless each person takes it seriously as a personal problem,” she said as she searched for still a third plumber. “Here I am trying to wash dishes in one batch to save water, and I can’t turn off the darned shower.”

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