Drought keeps grip on Md.

Dry conditions called the worst ever for this time of year

June 10, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Temperatures are expected to cool to the 80s today, but no relief is in the forecast for a drought that has spread across the state, wilting the leaves of young corn crops, burning grass brown in back yards and golf courses, and forcing thousands of residents to live under tough water restrictions.

Rainfall at Baltimore- Washington International Airport is nearly 16 inches below normal for the 12 months ending in May, making the period the second-driest on record in 104 years.

"It is unusual, the severity for this time of year," said Doug Le Comte, a senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. "This doesn't mean it's the worst drought we've had. It's the worst for this time of year."

The driest 12-month period was recorded in 1930-1931, when a severe shortage of rainfall across the nation created the Dust Bowl, according to National Weather Service records that date to 1896.

River flows into the Chesapeake Bay are at all-time lows, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Boaters, and canoeists and rafters will probably see less white water this summer as water behind dams is reserved for other uses.

The Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, Pa., was at 31 percent of normal flow, and the Potomac River at Little Falls was down to 23 percent of normal.

Farmers, who were trying to recover from two drought years, were caught off guard by the dry weather this spring.

Without rain, the blades of some plants are starting to curl into slender cylinders. The ground is so dry in some regions that farmers have quit planting soybeans until the rain falls again.

Geneva and Lawrence Meeks, who own Arters Mill Farms and work 2,000 acres of grain in northern Carroll County and southern Pennsylvania, are expecting a possible 25 percent decrease in yield if no rain falls in the next three days. "There's no way you can make that up," said Geneva Meeks.

An Eastern Shore farmer was even less optimistic.

"I came through Caroline County the other day, and it doesn't matter," said Dan Shortall, a grain and poultry farmer in Centreville in Queen Anne's County. "I think the corn crop over there is already gone. What makes it so bad is that this is a yearlong drought, and we've got no ground water."

Maryland is at the center of dry conditions that have developed across the mid-Atlantic region, and extended as far south as Georgia and Flori da and north into parts of New England. All of Maryland except the far west is experiencing severe or extreme drought.

It has been 16 days since the last measurable rainfall in the Baltimore region. Forecasters expect near-normal precipitation and temperatures by the middle of next week. But the National Weather Service offered little hope for an end to the drought.

Normal rainfall will not provide enough moisture to allow the region to recover, given the rain deficit and the high evaporation rates during the summer.

"To get anywhere out of it, we need significantly higher rainfall," said Melody Paschetag, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. "The only way that is going to happen is if we get a tropical storm coming into the area."

Such a storm would be welcome in the parched southern part of the state, where the weather has reduced wheat yields and jeopardized corn planted in late April.

"It looks like another week of this kind of weather and [the corn] could be lost completely," said Herb Reed, an agent with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties.

Those complaints are echoed in the Baltimore region.

"Most of us are still paying off debt from last year's drought," said Martha Clark, a member of the Howard County Farm Bureau. "It's an expense we can't handle."

"Basically, it looks like July out there," said R. David Myers, an agent for Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

In normal weather conditions, cornstalks would be more than knee-high at this point in the growing cycle, but this year they are a foot high, Myers said.

Ground-water levels also have fallen throughout the state.

In Mount Airy, where the water table has been taxed because of the drought and increased water use, town officials banned outdoor watering, carwashing and landscaping. Violators are subject to fines.

"Our water table is going down, and without a ban, we will deplete our wells," said R. Delaine Hobbs, Town Council president. Town wells are pumping near capacity and cannot continue at that rate, he said.

In northern Carroll County, mayors in Manchester and Hampstead have asked town residents to practice voluntary water conservation. Residents of South Carroll's Freedom District, the county's most populous region, have been living under a ban on outdoor water use since the beginning of the month. The district has been running at or above capacity because of the drought and the recent heat wave.

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