Tri-State weathering drought

February 20, 2002

Tri-State weathering drought


It's enough to depress Gene Kelly. He wouldn't be singing these days because there's no rain.

Streams and wells are drying up.

Water tables are dropping.

Farmers are looking warily to the upcoming growing season.

"We don't have any water in the ground," Washington County Agriculture Extension Agent Don Schwartz said.

The city of Hagerstown has had below-average precipitation for seven months, but the dryness goes back further than that.

Jim Vaughn of Smithsburg, a meteorologist, said the drought has gone on for about four years. A weather observer for The Herald-Mail, Vaughn said that by his calculations, rainfall is 38.5 inches below normal since July 1998.

For now, the concern may be more residential than agricultural. Municipal water supplies are not dangerously low yet, but water wells are conking out.


The Washington County Health Department issued 24 permits last month to replace failing wells. Last January, no permits were issued.

"We've been losing wells right along and it's getting critical," Environmental Health Sanitarian Alice Towne said.

Some well drillers are reporting waiting lists longer than usual.

Water use curbed

A drought emergency - the most severe classification - is in effect in Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania. Residents are banned from watering lawns, washing cars and other uses that are not essential.

Most other parts of the Tri-State area have not reached that stage.

Berkeley County has asked water users to voluntary conserve water.

A drought watch is in effect in Washington County, which means residents should take care in their water use.

Frederick County is at the next level, a drought warning.

Last week, the town of Thurmont in Frederick County and the city of Cumberland in Allegany County imposed their own water restrictions. Washing cars and sidewalks are banned. Cumberland restaurants can't serve water unless patrons request it.

The only restrictions in Washington County are southeast of Hagerstown, in the Mount Aetna area, which has about 130 water hook-ups. A mandatory conservation order was put in place about 90 days ago, said Bill Dean, superintendent of water and sewer operations for the county.

Some of the springs feeding the county's water supply are about half-full, but "we're not in any drastic situation yet," Dean said.

Washington County fire departments sometimes draw on the bigger streams to fight fires, but the drought hasn't affected protection, said Joe Kroboth III, the county's emergency services director.

"You need at least two or two-and-a-half feet of stream depth" - enough to accommodate large hoses - for firefighters to use a stream, Kroboth said. Those streams are too deep to be dry.

Potomac is down

The Potomac River at Little Falls, near Washington, D.C., is at about one-third of its normal level, said John Verrico, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Environment. The same is true for Antietam Creek in Washington County and Monocacy River in Frederick County.

"We need to get out and do the rain dance," Verrico said.

Still, the city of Hagerstown - which draws from the Potomac and in turn sells water to Williamsport, Funkstown and Smithsburg - isn't in danger yet, Water Department Manager Gene Walzl said.

He said the city's water supply is "in decent shape."

"The supply is low, but it's not critical, and there are storage capabilities above us on the Jennings Randolph Lake in Bloomington (in southeast Garrett County)," Walzl said.

"We're not in effect asking people for any restrictions at this point, (but) as we always do, we ask for wise use of the water.

"We are carefully monitoring the situation and we will stay in touch with local and state officials as we need to declare any kind of usage pattern changes as they may be needed."

Some people are buying water temporarily to fill wells instead of replacing them, said Towne, the environmental health sanitarian in Washington County.

The rush to get water at Green Spring Water Co. in Clear Spring started in the summer and continued in the fall, said General Manager Catherine Schoen.

The past two months, more people are choosing gallon containers instead of coolers, a sign of stockpiling, she said.

Dry spots spreading

Across the county, people are noticing other dry spots.

The upper reaches of Beaver Creek are parched, Schwartz said.

The 43-acre lake at Greenbrier State Park is down about 2 feet, according to Park Ranger Dan Spedden. A ban on burning is possible this summer, he said.

In Clear Spring, the town spring has gone dry.

Towne said the health department has been unable to do percolation tests in "wet soil areas" this month.

Workers were scheduled to begin Feb. 15, but "there isn't any wet soil to test," she said.

The tests, which are required before septic systems can be installed, have been postponed two weeks.

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