Maryland drought is worst in 70 years

no relief seen

Water use restricted

livestock, crops suffer

July 10, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Maryland's sparse rainfall over the past year -- nearly 40 percent below normal levels -- has created the state's worst drought in 70 years and no immediate relief is in sight, according to National Weather Service meteorologists.

The drought has led several small Maryland communities to restrict water use. In some areas, residents have been banned from watering lawns, washing cars or using water for anything other than essential purposes.

Meanwhile, worried farmers are hoping for enough rain to save their crops, while dairy and cattle farmers need rain to replenish withering pastures where their livestock graze.

"For the state of Maryland, this is the second-worst drought since recordkeeping began in the late 1880s," said Barbara M. Watson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's office in Sterling, Va.

The drought that was worse lasted 18 months in 1930-1931, she said.

"Even under normal rainfall conditions for the rest of the summer, it wouldn't change the drought because the evaporation rate exceeds the rainfall rate," Watson said.

"We don't see any break in the type of weather we've been getting. It looks like we'll continue to fall further into [rainfall] deficit."

Rainfall measured at Baltimore-Washington International Airport normally averages 44.43 inches a year, the National Weather Service said. But only 27.13 inches have been recorded there since June 1, 1998 -- 17.3 inches less than normal.

State officials say some of the worst problems with water shortages are in rural areas and smaller communities that rely on household wells or relatively small community wells.

"Anybody who has a well that's shallow is susceptible to drought no matter where they are," said Gary T. Fisher, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who gathers data from the Maryland, Delaware and Washington area.

Fisher said most of the problems tend to be in the areas west of U.S. 1, where the geology is hard rock and wells tend to be more shallow than those in the sandy soils of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

In the midst of the drought, water is plentiful for the state's most densely populated areas -- Baltimore, Baltimore County and much of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

"If we don't have another drop of rain, we're good through the fall," said Karl L. Kocher, a spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works.

"We don't have any restrictions, and we don't anticipate any."

Reservoirs close to normal

The city draws its water from three reservoirs, which have dropped only a few feet below normal levels, Kocher said.

"We're really fortunate here in terms of the planning that went into those reservoirs," he said.

The reservoirs are a source of treated water for 1.8 million people in the city, Baltimore County and part of Anne Arundel County, DPW officials said.

The reservoirs also are a source of untreated water for Carroll and Howard counties.

Marjorie L. Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water and sanitary service to 1.6 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's county, also said there are no problems with that system.

WSSC draws much of its water from the Potomac River. Although at lower-than-normal levels, the Potomac still provides enough water to supply WSSC and several Washington-area communities, Johnson said.

"We are in good shape, barring any mechanical or operational failure," Johnson said.

"We have two reservoirs that are full, and we can supplement the flow of the Potomac when and if that becomes necessary."

Other communities have not been as fortunate.

Restrictions on use

The Maryland Department of the Environment says at least eight communities have mandatory water-use restrictions in effect. Seven others have voluntary bans on outdoor watering.

Communities in parts of Allegany, Calvert, Carroll, Frederick, Harford and St. Mary's counties have rushed to negotiate or construct emergency connections to neighboring systems, reservoirs or streams.

Others are drilling new wells or looking for new well sites.

In Harford County, Maryland-American Water Co. in Bel Air asked its 4,500 customers yesterday to cut back on outdoor and nonessential water use because of the drought.

"If water usage is not significantly reduced through voluntary efforts or if the flow in the stream continues to decline, additional mandatory restrictions may be required," said Manager Ben Lewis.

How to conserve

Under its statewide drought warning, the MDE recommends that all Marylanders conserve by turning the tap off while brushing teeth, shaving or shampooing; taking shorter showers; washing only full loads of clothes and dishes; and installing low-flow water fixtures.

Fisher, the hydrologist, said one indication of the drought's severity is the low levels of rivers and streams throughout the region.

"No matter how you look at it, we're in a severe drought," Fisher said.

"The streams are very low throughout the state of Maryland.

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