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Summer of '99 was hot, dry

September 22, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The summer of 1999 scorched farms, baked gardens, discouraged outdoor activities and alarmed politicians for most of the season.

Then it rained.

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The last few weeks of summer brought rain from the remnants of two hurricanes to the Tri-State area.

"Overall, it adds up to a summer that we'll remember for quite some time," said Washington County Agricultural Extension Agent Don Schwartz.

Schwartz estimated that the drought wiped out about half of local farmers' corn, soybean, hay and alfalfa crops. Farmers can only hope that autumn, which begins today, is more like the tail end of summer.

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"We got nailed this year," he said.

The impact of the intense summer weather extended beyond the farm.

Drought restrictions were declared in the eastern part of the United States and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed the first statewide mandatory water restrictions in the state's history.

Local restrictions remain in effect in the Mount Aetna and Highfield areas of Washington County.

Drought, combined with below-average rainfall during late 1998, lowered water levels in reservoirs, lakes and rivers.

Despite the inordinately dry summer, local weather observer Greg Keefer said it was not a record-breaker, at least not in Hagerstown.

"We got rain when other places didn't. It kind of messed up our drought." he said. "We didn't come close to breaking the record for the longest dry spell."

The area did experience record heat, however.

The average temperature for June, July and August was 75.6 degrees, according to Keefer. That's the fifth-highest three-month average on record.

July led the way with an average temperature of 80 degrees, making it the hottest month ever, Keefer said. The month also set a record because temperatures reached 90 degrees or higher on 23 days.

"I've never seen that before," Keefer said.

Schwartz said the weather was reminiscent of that of 1930, when wells, springs and streams dried up. From an agriculture standpoint, he said the last two years have been drier than any time since the mid-1960s.

Keefer noted that the last four months of 1998 were the driest end to a year on record.

Outdoor activity also took a hit as people fled the heat.

Marsha Starkey, a spokeswoman at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, said the numbers took a nosedive after a healthy June.

"Specifically, July, it was dismal," she said.

Starkey said the park had 43,197 visitors in July, down 24.8 percent from July 1998. August was off too, down 23 percent from the previous year with 38,972 visitors.

"July is usually our busiest to second-busiest month, rivaling October," Starkey said.

Starkey had no doubt about what caused the dropoff.

"I think the incredible heat. People wanted to find something a little cooler to do," she said.

Golf courses suffered, also.

In Maryland, Glendening's water restriction forced golf courses to stop watering their fairways.

Municipal Golf Course has no irrigation system for the fairways, so the ban had no effect there, said greenskeeper Allen Seacrist.

But the weather still took a toll. People took a look at the burned-up course and decided to skip golf, Seacrist said.

The number of golfers in July and August dropped to about 8,000 from 9,000 during the same period last year.

Seacrist said it was the first time he could remember that the weather acted as such a deterrent.

The course has suffered under the blazing sun in past years. Seacrist recalled 1991 as a particularly dry year.

"But it didn't seem to affect the play at all," he said.

The good news has been 6.21 inches of rain that fell in the waning weeks of the season.

Although it comes too late to help most of the crops that were planted in the spring, Schwartz said the rain will help grain producers who are planting for next year.

It also will help farmers grow extra feed for their livestock, said Schwartz. Many had to dip into their winter hay supply because the drought scorched their pastures.

"That was just about as good as if we had asked for it that way," he said. "After a mediocre spring growing season and a horrible summer growing season, it looks like we're going to have an outstanding fall growing season."

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