The agency that manages the Susquehanna River has a message for anyone who comes looking for its water: Tighten your belt.

A draft policy aimed at discouraging others from seeking water from the Bay's largest tributary is being developed by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a state-federal compact with the authority to regulate water use within the 27,510-square-mile watershed.

The policy, expected to be finalized in November, was developed in anticipation of increased demand for water from the Susquehanna basin.

"There have been feelers put out that more water is needed in the state of Delaware and eastern Maryland," said Rich Cairo, general counsel with the SRBC.

The Susquehanna supplies roughly half of the fresh water to the Chesapeake and the amount of flow out of the river can affect salinity and water quality in the Bay.

The draft policy cites concerns about impacts on the Chesapeake as a reason to protect the basin's water supply, as well as the needs of other water users within the watershed.

Before the commission approves any transfer of water out of the basin, the policy states that the receiving area must provide "clear and convincing evidence that it has made every good faith effort to develop and conserve sources of water within the basin to which the project sponsor proposes to divert water and has fully considered other reasonable alternatives to the diversion."

Anyone who wants water from the Susquehanna, according to the draft policy, will have to agree to charge all users for the water at rates that encourage conservation, as well as conducting educational programs and other efforts that encourage conservation and minimize the potential for waste.

The policy stops short of flatly prohibiting out-of-basin transfers because, Cairo said, "there may be some legitimate cases where the public good would be served by it. You can never say never."

Cairo said Cecil County, Md., has considered asking for about 7.3 million gallons a water a day from the river, and Baltimore - which already gets some of its supply from the Susquehanna - may want to increase its amount. Interest has also been expressed in Delaware for water from the Susquehanna.

Adequate flow in the river is important not only to meet water demand, but to help maintain water quality standards. Discharges from wastewater treatment plants and industries depend on certain flows to dilute materials discharged into the water. Adequate flows are also needed to preserve wetlands and to prevent erosion and sedimentation.

Flows from the Susquehanna are typically so powerful that they keep salt water from the ocean miles down the Chesapeake. But at times, water flows can be so low that salt water from the Bay threatens the water supply at Havre de Grace at the mouth of the Susquehanna.

The average flow in the Susquehanna is 35,000 to 40,000 cubic feet per second, but under drought conditions, that can drop to 2,500 cfs "and people are really hurting," Cairo said. "Under normal flows it's not a problem. We're water rich most of the time. But then there's those times that we're not, and you have to plan for those times, too."

The policy is expected to be the subject of public hearings at SRBC meetings in July and September. Written comments are also being accepted by the commission.

For information, contact Cairo at the SRBC, 1721 N. Front St., Harrisburg, PA 17102, or call (717) 238-0423.