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Governor declares drought emergency

July 30, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

-- Drought measures

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening on Thursday declared a statewide drought emergency and called on residents to voluntarily curtail water use.

Glendening also said he would seek federal financial help for Maryland's farmers and promised $3 million in state money so they can plant crop cover and buy hay.

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The drought declaration, which could lead to mandatory water use restrictions by next week, comes during the state's most severe drought in about 30 years.

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"This drought is a serious problem. But we do not intend to let it become unmanageable," Glendening said in a statement.

The restrictions, which for now are voluntary, include not watering lawns, washing cars or taking long showers.

Glendening appointed a committee of state officials who will meet today to discuss recommendations on mandatory restrictions. The committee will make its recommendations by Tuesday, officials said.

Many local governments throughout the state have taken measures to preserve water. Mandatory use restrictions have been placed on water customers in the Highfield and Mount Aetna areas of Washington County.

The Maryland Department of the Environment issued water advisories this month and last December.

If Glendening makes some of the voluntary restrictions mandatory it would be the first time the state has ordered water limits.

"We've never done it," said Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment.

Banks said it is an indication of how serious the drought is.

Since last July, precipitation totals in the Hagerstown area are 8.64 inches below normal, according to Hagerstown weather observer Greg Keefer.

Reservoirs throughout the state are well below normal, and the Potomac River's water flow is 50 percent off its normal rate, according to state officials.

The dry weather has had other effects, as well. Natural resources officials have reported significant fish kills in Maryland waterways due to depleted oxygen in the water.

County health departments have reported increased well failures and the number of forest fires in the state have doubled from 1998.

The sun and heat also have scorched the state's farmland.

Glendening said the state will spend $3 million to provide emergency relief for hard-hit farmers.

"Primarily, that $3 million is going to be for assistance for cover crop and feed," said Harold Kanarek, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Farmers will be able to apply for the aid under a matching formula in which the state will pay 87.5 percent of the cost.

Kanarek said details of the program, such as eligibility requirements and per-farmer aid amounts, remain to be worked out.

Some farmers also may be eligible for low-interest loans from the federal government.

If crop damage assessments show a 30 percent loss or greater in a major commodity, Kanarek said Glendening will formally request that hard-hit counties be declared federal agricultural disaster areas.

Clear Spring-area farmer Jerry Ditto, who is president of the Washington County Farm Bureau, welcomed any relief the state could provide.

"Anything in a situation like we're in is going to be a help," he said. "I guess the question is, 'Is there enough?'"

Ditto said his corn stalks are higher and healthier than some of his neighbors to the north and south. But he said recent rains over the last couple of weeks have largely bypassed his area.

Ditto said he could face the loss of half his crop, or more.

"We're at a very critical stage right now. I'd say if we don't get significant rainfall in the next two weeks, we're going downhill very fast," he said.

Any corn that cannot be sold for grain can be turned into silage. But Ditto said the price would be much lower.

Compounding problems for local farmers is a bumper crop in the Midwest, which has depressed prices.

"Our local situation here has very little impact on the national price of grain," he said. "That's the double-whammy. That is what the problem is."

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