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W.Va. drought reaching critical levels

July 15, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Eastern Panhandle may face a serious water shortage if the region doesn't get substantial rain soon, according to the director of the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Services.

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"If it doesn't start raining, we're in for a rude awakening," Darrell Penwell said.

The state was declared an agricultural disaster area June 28, and West Virginia farmers have lost an estimated $50 million, state Department of Agriculture spokesman Bill Bissett said.

Another dry week could double the amount of losses, Bissett said.

"The statistics are trickling out each week. I hate to say it, but it's like a slow death process," Bissett said.

The drought has affected everyone from beef farmers who can't grow enough grain to feed livestock to gardeners who are seeing smaller fruit yields, Jefferson County Extension Agent Craig Yohn said.

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Making matters worse for local farmers are low crop prices created by good weather conditions in other parts of the country, Yohn said.

"Farmers here have to contend with low prices and a low yield," he said.

The drought could mean major losses for large numbers of area farmers, he said.

"All we can do is wait and hope, but if we don't get the rains, we're in for deep trouble," Yohn said.

Without significant rainfall soon, the drought will start affecting a lot more people than farmers, Penwell said.

The Eastern Panhandle is already 14 to 15 inches below normal rainfall levels dating back to June 1998, he said.

As the groundwater table continues to decline, wells will start going dry and surface water from streams and rivers will be sucked into the ground, Penwell said.

There is no way to gauge exactly when that might happen, but officials need to be prepared for the possibility, he said.

"The thing that scares me the most is that it will happen all at once," Penwell said.

West Virginia is enduring its worst drought in 33 years and could surpass the 1931 drought if the region doesn't get a good rainfall in the next four weeks, Penwell said.

Gov. Cecil Underwood has asked people to conserve water but so far has not issued any mandatory water rationing measures, Penwell said.

With the National Weather Service not forecasting any rainfall relief in the near future, Penwell is bracing for the possibility of setting up staging areas that would provide people with drinking and cooking water if wells go dry.

The lack of water could also lead to a rabies alert in the Eastern Panhandle as more animals head toward towns in search of food and water, Penwell said.

"If they can't find water in the woods, they'll come looking for it," he said.

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