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Rain helps, but drought still here

June 08, 2002|By JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

The area has been hit by thunderstorms, lawns are green, fresh local produce is available and occasionally state officials issue warnings for hazardous conditions on the Potomac River.

But, make no mistake, much of the Tri-State area is still in a drought, officials said Friday.

"Really, our situation hasn't changed unless you happen to be standing in a mud puddle," Washington County Agriculture Extension Agent Don Schwartz said. "The crops are holding their own, the groundwater levels are not getting worse, but we're still for all intents and purposes in a drought situation.

"Our corn roots later in the summer are going to want to extend down to the third foot of soil and that soil is still nowhere near water-holding capacity."

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Western Maryland's status is listed as normal, but Washington County's drought indicators are in the warning range, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment's Web site for drought information.

Washington County is listed as being in a moderate drought, according to the long-term drought severity index published by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

That same index shows West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle and local Pennsylvania counties as being near normal. However, Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker extended the drought emergency status for Franklin and Fulton counties by 90 days on May 13.

Many residents in the Tri-State area are being asked to voluntarily conserve water.

The last mandatory water restrictions in Washington County, for Mount Aetna, were lifted approximately 10 days ago, said Bill Dean, the county's superintendent of water and sewer operations.

"The rain has helped improve the situation, but it has not eliminated the drought situation," Dean said.

County officials still are asking residents to voluntarily refrain from washing driveways or siding, filling swimming pools or other excessive uses of water, Dean said.

Hagerstown had received 14.76 inches of rain as of June 6, according to weather observer Greg Keefer's Web site. That's still below average. The city averages 15.09 inches of rain from January through May.

Hagerstown Water Department Engineer Dave Shindle said the city's water supply is fine even though Potomac River levels are below normal. City officials also are asking customers to voluntarily conserve.

Frederick County is still under a drought emergency, declared by the governor April 5, that carries mandatory restrictions.

Residents are not to wash cars or paved surfaces and restaurant workers aren't to serve water unless it is asked for, Frederick Public Works Director Fred Eisenhart said. Only new grass or sod can be watered.

"I'm very concerned," Eisenhart said.

The Monocacy River, a water source for the city, is at record low flows. Also, the city's reservoirs are full, but water is barely trickling over the spillway rather than flowing, he said.

"All indications are that we have a serious water supply problem that's probably going to hit us pretty hard in July, August, September," Eisenhart said.

Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty may order more mandatory restrictions for the city this month, Eisenhart said.

Proposed restrictions include requiring city businesses to reduce water usage by 10 percent, closing car washes on Mondays and not allowing residents to water their grass, he said.

Rainfall in March and early April provided a little relief to Thurmont, Md., which gets its water from wells, said Gary Dingle, superintendent of the water treatment plant.

However, those water levels are starting to drop again, Dingle said.

The town still has water restrictions in effect. About 25 to 30 warnings have been issued to users, but no one has been charged with a second offense, Dingle said.

Town officials decided on Tuesday to continue the moratorium on building permits because of drought conditions, Dingle said.

Water Conservation Committee members are creating a code system to notify residents of the town's status and restrictions, Dingle said. For example, the town could issue a cautionary yellow warning or a more serious orange or red warning, notifying people on Channel 99, he said.

Berkeley County, W.Va., residents still are being asked to voluntarily conserve water after mandatory restrictions were lifted in mid-May, said Bill Alexander, chairman of the county's Public Service District water board. The Panhandle remains extremely dry, he said.

Water board officials are working on long-term ways to address the drought, Alexander said. They include connecting the different water systems in the county to make it easier to switch water to a specific area. In February, the southern end of the county was within three to four days of running out of water, he said.

Alexander said he is optimistic Maryland officials will grant a request for Berkeley County to double its intake from the Potomac River to 4 million gallons a day.

Water board officials also want to have an in-depth study conducted on water availability, taking into account projected population growth, Alexander said.

Chambersburg, Pa., Borough Manager Eric Oyer said recent rainfall helped raise the water level at the main reservoir, but he's still concerned.

Oyer said he doesn't expect the drought emergency status for Franklin County to be lifted before September.

Water restrictions still are in effect, he said.

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