Farmers, firefighters eye rains with envy

August 26, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Call it rain-envy.

While Floridians slosh about in their second tropical deluge this summer, farmers and firefighters on Maryland's parched Eastern Shore are wishing for even just a passing splash from a tropical storm.

All of Maryland could use some serious rain, but parts of the Eastern Shore have had virtually none in the past 35 days. Late crops of soybeans are stunted, cornfields are wilting, and the state forest service is stamping out Eastern Shore brush fires at more than three times the normal August pace.

"We needed the backwash from [Hurricane] Felix, and we just didn't get it," said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Wayne McGinnis, 58, of White Hall, who farms about 1,200 acres in Baltimore County, said, "The grass and pastures are just dried up." Although early crops did well, "late corn and soybeans are under a lot of stress. It's going to affect the overall average yield."

Most farmers are resigned to the losses, he said. But "it's probably increased church attendance."

The Department of Natural Resources this week urged Eastern Shore residents to avoid outdoor burning and will consider an outright ban if the situation worsens.

Voluntary water restrictions are in place in Oxford, in Talbot County. And across the state line, Delaware Gov. Thomas Carper issued a drought warning Wednesday for northern New Castle County, the Associated Press reported.

Elsewhere, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission has put large commercial water users on standby to implement drought measures if water levels fall much more. Voluntary water conservation measures have been urged throughout the Susquehanna watershed.

Despite the dry spell, Baltimore's Prettyboy and Loch Raven reservoirs remain near their crests. However, ground water levels are falling, especially on the Eastern Shore.

Maryland's rainfall deficit has been building for nearly a year, said National Weather Service forecaster Dick Diener, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Precipitation at BWI has been below normal for each of the past 11 months -- since September 1994. That's left the area nearly 10.5 inches short of the normal annual rainfall of 40.76 inches.

If you ignore September 1994, when rainfall at BWI was a half-inch above normal, the dry pattern goes back 16 months -- to May 1994.

And rain that has fallen in the past year has come mostly in large amounts over short periods, with limited value to agriculture.

"When you get two inches of rain in a day, you know a lot of that is going to run off, and it's not going to soak in," Mr. Diener said. "So the benefits are not as long-term as you would have with a gentle rain across three to five days."

Florida storm

Tropical Storm Jerry, meanwhile, dumped more than 15 inches of rain this week on Sanibel Island, Fla., 10 1/4 inches near Stuart and nearly 8 inches in West Palm Beach.

It's now moving north, and "they've got it reaching southern Virginia by Saturday," Mr. Diener said. But the rain does not appear to be headed here.

"Our next best hope may be [tropical storm] Iris," now moving into the Caribbean, Mr. Diener said.

That leaves Gerald Vickers, eastern region fire manager for the state forest service, with a million tinder-dry acres of forest and marsh in eight Eastern Shore counties, and no relief in sight.

"I've been with the state 16 years, and I've never seen it this dry at this time of year," he said.

The state's 28 fire personnel on the Eastern Shore, together with local volunteers, have battled nearly 400 forest and brush fires so far in 1995 -- about the normal number for an entire year. About 4,000 acres have burned.

"So far this month we've experienced about 40 fires, and that's way above average for August," Mr. Vickers said. Usually, August is humid, with showers and just two or three fires.

The summer's blazes have been tough to fight. Twenty-five straight days of 95-degree temperatures on the Shore dried everything out and killed some younger plants. As a result, "the fires are burning deep into the ground, which makes them extremely hard to put out," Mr. Vickers said.

Impact varies

The lack of rain has affected some crops and some areas more than others. Fruit orchards, small grain crops and irrigated vegetable fields have done well, agriculture officials say.

But farmers with corn, soybeans, late snap beans or vegetable fields without irrigation have watched their crops parch. It has been worse where soils are light, or where fields have been bypassed by the spotty summer showers.

"Nobody's abandoned anything yet, but there is irreversible damage out there," said Jim Voss, executive director in Maryland for the federal consolidated Farm Service Agency. "Anticipated yields will be down significantly for soybeans, even if good rains came now."

The hardest-hit areas in Maryland are the extreme southern portions of the Eastern Shore.

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