Area still faces drought threat

December 09, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Like a bad-weather boomerang, drought conditions that were eased by heavy rains in late summer could return if the area doesn't receive plenty of rain and snow this winter.

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Below-average November streamflows caused a drop in the region's reservoir levels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Hydrologists say that is contrary to the normal seasonal pattern of increased rates between October and November.

The drought prompted Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening to impose statewide water-use restrictions on Aug. 4. The restrictions were lifted four weeks later after heavy rains fell across the state, easing drought conditions.

Without sufficient precipitation, Mother Nature could stage an encore, according to Washington County Agricultural Extension Agent Donald Schwartz.

Water is vital to farmers who depend on it for crops and livestock.

"We're fine for the rest of the year, but we've got a long way to go," Schwartz said. "It's going to take a durn sight more than average rains."


For three years in a row, winters in the county have been relatively dry, Schwartz said.

"We need 50 percent above normal rainfall. Instead of four to five inches a month, we need six, seven or eight," he said.

Drought is due to a long-term scarcity of rain, so prolonged precipitation is needed for recovery.

Groundwater levels drop during the spring and summer when plants consume more of the surface water. Water tables recharge during the fall and winter.

So far this fall, more rain has fallen in the area than last year. Hagerstown had 1.71 inches of rain in October 1998, compared to 2.71 inches this year, according to local weather observer Greg Keefer. Last November, .62 inches fell, while this year's total for that month was 1.16 inches.

Last year's total rainfall was 42.27 inches. To match that amount in 1999, 3.7 inches of precipitation must fall in December.

"My perception is, it's just really dry," said Soil Conservation District Manager Elmer Weibley. "We're just not getting the fall rain that we normally have. The faucet kind of shut off after the hurricanes came through."

Streamflows on Beaver Creek are down to a trickle, "The lowest I've ever seen them," Weibley said.

Flow rates of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River are higher than they were at this time last year, but are nonetheless below normal, according to the Geological Survey.

The Potomac's rate near Washington dropped from 5.4 billion gallons per day (bgd) in October to 2.6 bgd in November, 21 percent below normal. In the bay, the November flow was 21.4 bgd, about 44 percent below normal.

In Western Maryland, groundwater levels have decreased and are below normal, the Geological Survey says. It keeps monitoring stations at wells in Hancock, Big Pool and Smithsburg to measure the water's depth.

Colleen Cashell, executive director of the county's Farm Service Agency, runs a federal program that helps farmers whose water sources have dried up. Since September, two have applied to the emergency conservation program, she said.

Cashell suspects several more were affected and the problem may worsen.

"What we think is going to happen is, over the winter we're going to lose more wells," she said.

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