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Wet, cool weather blanketing region

May 25, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

It's Memorial Day weekend, the first big holiday of the summer. Time to pull out the grill, don the swimsuits and welcome the warm weather back after its long winter's nap.

Just one problem - somebody forgot to tell the warm weather that it's May already.

If it seems that it's been an unusually cold and wet year so far, that's because it has been. Last winter was the coldest in 10 years, with temperatures below normal every month from December to March, according to statistics from Hagerstown Weather Observer Greg Keefer's Web site, i4weather.net.

And beginning last August, precipitation has been above normal every month except January.

February made up for January though, with twice as much precipitation as usual - much of it in the winter storm that dumped 2 feet of snow on the region.

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The wet weather is basically good news for an area that was suffering from major drought this time last year. But there can be too much of a good thing.

After last week's rains, the National Weather Service announced that soil was saturated and that more heavy rains could result in flooding. By Friday, the service predicted a rise of just a few feet in the Potomac, but warned that the river is unsafe for recreational use because of high water.

At flood-prone Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet, the water was 4 feet above normal last week, though still below flood stage, said Natural Resource Manager Bill Hebb of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Flood stage at Harpers Ferry is 18 feet, Hebb said, but park officials start to take action when the water reaches 16 feet.

At that point, he said, "the C&O Canal can become inundated" - and park officials close the footbridge that connects Harpers Ferry to the canal. At 19.5 feet, flood water approaches the Lower Town. If the water reaches 21 feet, Hebb said, "we get a little nervous." Water begins to flood the restored park buildings at 23.5 feet.

Weather service spokesperson Jackie Hale said Friday the weather forecast is not as dismal as previously thought for this weekend, and flooding may not be an issue. But she blamed the climate on the weather patterns that have stalled over the region.

As for the abundance of moisture this season, she said, "It's not unusual for us to have a wet spring; it's just feast or famine, I guess."

Regardless of whether the current weather patterns bring serious flooding, many local farmers' planting and harvesting seasons have been delayed by the cool temperatures and dampness, Washington County Extension Agent Don Schwartz said.

"If you're a farmer trying to get work done, it's becoming inconvenient," Schwartz said.

Farmers are planting corn and beans when they can, he said, but those who need to make hay while the sun shines already are behind. Schwartz said the weather has delayed the maturing of the hay and alfalfa.

"Another two weeks, and the harvests of hay will become seriously delayed," he said.

The result will be poorer quality and higher costs to dairy farmers for feed.

"We've probably had enough to this point, but nobody wants to turn off the faucet just yet," Schwartz said, because a dry period during the summer could be just as bad for farmers.

On the plus side, there haven't been any frosts this spring despite the cool temperatures. The result has been "very heavy fruit sets," Schwartz said. "That means the growers will have to treat more for fungus, but we should have a really bountiful harvest."

It may just be a little later than usual.

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