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Parched Northeast waits not so much for fall foliage as for rain

Usually, this time of year, the Northeast waits eagerly for the riot of color that signals the arrival of "foliage season." This year, however, the Northeast also waits for rain.

From Maine to New Jersey, prolonged drought has threatened crops, dried up lawns, and prompted a wide range of emergency measures, including government-ordered rationing.

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Even the late-coming fall foliage in some areas is being blamed partly on the drought, as trees conserve moisture for their roots, allowing the leaves to dry out while still green.

In Maine and New Hampshire, which depend to a large extent on melting snow to replenish reservoirs, there have been spot shortages because of the paucity of snow last winter as well as the lack of rain this summer.

Some experts recommend that the region copy the day-in, day-out conservation tactics used in traditionally dry areas.

One such expert is Michael DiGiano, water conservation program manager for the New England River Basins Commission, who says much more than the application of stopgap "crisis mentality" solutions is needed in the Northeast. Older industrial communities with deteriorating water pipes should raise usage rates to pay for new pipes, he urges, and costly new watersource projects should be approved only after it is determined whether conservation can cut the need for them.

Many areas, however, can afford to wait for neither the benefits of long-term conservation nor for rainfall. For example:

* New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne ordered rationing in 114 communities in the northern part of the state last week. All users, including industrial, were told to cut their consumption by 25 percent or face fines and jail sentences.

There has been a notable degree of cooperation, says a spokesman for the governor, but "much more progress needs to be made."

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Suburban areas reportedly are conserving better than the cities are, and beginning next week the state will begin a stepped-up enforcement program, including spot checks and surcharges on water bills whose usage totals indicate that customers have not obeyed the rationing order. Enforced rationing in New Jersey, the governor's spokesman says, is expected to last "for another six months."

* Parts of Pennsylvania, especially along the eastern edge, are reporting such serious water shortages that Gov. Richard Thornburgh has asked nearly 100 communities to conserve. But he has not yet imposed rationing. Spot supply problems also are reported in the west-central section of the state.

"Water is becoming a limited commodity in Pennsylvania," says a spokesman for the governor.

* Amherst, Mass., which has added a new municipal well to its sources of water, still faces a "net shortage of 500,000 gallons a day" from normal levels, says town manager A. Louis Hayward. Forced rationing, he adds, now is a possibility because calls for voluntary conservation have not been heeded in many instances. Last month the drought prompted the University of Massachusetts to send students home over a weekend when water pressure on campus fell drastically.

Here in New York, the water system is operating at only 60 percent of capacity, although a city Department of Environmental Protection official charactizes that as "acceptable" and "not alarming." New York had more rain than upstate New Jersey over the summer, but the city gets much of its water through an extensively integrated pipeline system from reservoirs upstate. New York Mayor Edward Koch offered Oct. 2 to share some of his city's water with needy communities in northern New Jersey.

The four members of the Delaware River Basins Commission -- Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and New Jersey -- are considering building new reservoirs.

New Jersey actually has considerable reservoir capacity. All it needs, say experts, is a means of getting water from the western section of the state to the northeast. To that end, Governor Byrne and other state officials are banking on voters approving an $8 million bond issue Nov. 4 for partial funding of a new network of water pipelines.

New York City, meanwhile, has some long-range plans of its own. For the first time since its financial crisis began in the early 1970s, it has authorized the renewal of construction of a third water tunnel from reservoirs in the mountains upstate. But how far construction can continue will depend on how long the city remains fiscally stable.

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