GRANTSVILLE -- Springs have stopped flowing and wells are going dry in Maryland's western counties from a drought that area residents describe as the worst in memory.
Drillers are working seven days a week to meet demands for new wells. An elementary school ran out of water. Farmers have begun selling cattle for fear of not being able to water them through the winter.
"I've been in the well-drilling business for 10 years and I've never seen it like this, and the man I bought the business from drilled wells for 30 years, and he's never seen it this bad," said Wayne T. Bolden, owner of Wayne's Water and Wells in Oakland.
"This is the driest I have ever seen it," said Wendell R. Beitzel, 48, Garrett County's Sanitary District chief.
A burning ban is in effect for both counties because of dry conditions. Forest fires have burned more than 300 acres of state timberland.
James Belville, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the region "has been water deficient since last spring. We didn't get the summer rains that we normally get, and the bulk of the annual precipitation are from those type of events."
The three-month regional forecast calls for normal amounts of precipitation. But normal won't cut it for many of the 110,000 residents in these two counties. "It will take a tremendous amount of rainfall above normal and a good snow cover to help get us back to normal," said Grantsville Mayor Fred Holliday.
Much of Western and Central Maryland suffered through this summer's severe drought. The dry weather resulted in an estimated $70 million in crop damage for farmers in Washington, Frederick, Carroll and Howard counties -- and several others.
But the two westernmost Maryland counties appear to be suffering the most serious long-term effects of the drought -- Garrett County in particular. For the first 10 months of this year, rainfall in the county has been 27.67 inches -- down about 15 inches, nearly 40 percent, from the previous year. It is the lowest it's been in the past five years, according to Bea Crosco, weather observer in Oakland for the National Weather Service. In Allegany County, rainfall is down about 10 inches compared with the 10-month average for four previous years, said Tim Thomas, weather observer in Cumberland for the weather service.
Grantsville has been the hardest-hit community in the region. The town's water has come from springs that feed the water plant. When those springs go dry, a backup well is used. This summer, the well could not meet the demand, said Mr. Holliday Fire companies from Grantsville and surrounding communities have hauled in about 700,000 gallons of lake water to supply the town in the last month -- an effort that went on hold late last week until the town sees if it can depend on two newly dug wells.
Residents do what they can
"Hopefully, that will take care of it," Mr. Holliday said. "Otherwise, we need the help of the good Lord to give us more water."
Residents have voluntarily done their part to cut down consumption. Mr. Holliday said water usage by the town's 500 citizens dropped between 10,000 and 15,000 gallons a day.
Doris M. Beal, 36, for example, said that over the past several months she's been "monitoring the kids' showers or not watering the lawn."
"It worried me," she said when she heard the town was hauling water in firetrucks. "You don't realize how much you appreciate water until you don't have it."
Stories like Mrs. Beal's seem out of place in a county with five rivers and the largest lake in the state.
But most of the residents rely on the shallow water table, from springs, that usually provides an adequate supply because of traditionally large amounts of summer rainfall, said Mr. Beitzel, who as head of the county's sanitary district is the point man in the water crisis.
When the weather cooperates, rainwater percolates through the soil and drains down to the aquifer, a plane of water that forms underground atop a layer of clay or something else on which it pools. When the aquifer grows large enough, it pushes water to the surface in the form of springs. If it were to rain now, it wouldn't do much to replenish those springs, Mr. Beitzel said.
"The soil is so dry so deep that it will take lots of moisture, until the soil is saturated enough that it drains down to the aquifer," he said.
Well drillers busy
The drought has brought a boom in business for well drillers, but Mr. Bolden, owner of Wayne's Water and Wells, said he didn't need extra business. He said he has a two-month waiting list of customers.
"We're working seven days a week to help people who are in dire situations," Mr. Bolden said.
In Allegany County, the Georges Creek area nearly went dry when wells stopped producing for the Lonaconing Water Co., which serves the towns of Midland, Lonaconing and Barton.
County commissioners declared a water emergency, banning use of water for washing cars and watering lawns.
Some communities are using water tanks for supplies because of dried-up wells.