Floyd brings 5 billion gallons to reservoirs

State may reconsider city's pumping from Susquehanna, experts say

September 18, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

Hurricane Floyd caused record stream flows in many Chesapeake Bay tributaries, dumped 5 billion gallons of water into Baltimore-area reservoirs and may have ended the region's lingering drought.

"For all intents and purposes, the drought appears to be over," said Susan Woods, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "But we're asking people to continue to conserve water until we make a final determination."

It will be a few days until officials can fully assess the storm's effect on water supplies. The Potomac River watershed saw far less rain than Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore. And it isn't clear how much surface water was captured by reservoirs or trickled into the ground -- as opposed to sluicing into the Chesapeake or the Atlantic.

But Floyd clearly helped quench Maryland's thirst.

City water officials estimate that the storm poured 2.6 billion gallons of water into Loch Raven Reservoir, about 1 billion gallons into Prettyboy Reservoir and almost 1.4 billion gallons into Liberty Reservoir. Water was spilling over the top of Loch Raven yesterday, though water levels remained far lower at Liberty and Prettyboy.

Nearly 59% capacity

Overall, the metropolitan water system's three reservoirs went from about 50 percent of capacity at the height of the drought this summer to almost 59 percent of capacity yesterday.

The average for this time of year is 65 percent.

Water experts said that rising reservoir levels could lead the state to reconsider its order forcing Baltimore to pump water from the Susquehanna River, which the city reluctantly began doing Aug. 8. Susquehanna water requires expensive treatment, and many consumers don't like its taste.

"We've had quite a bit of rain over the last two weeks," said Woods. "We're definitely out of any emergency or critical phase." But, she added, it might be "premature" to halt pumping from the Susquehanna.

Floyd's impact varied widely from place to place, said Gary Fisher of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Maryland Science Center at Baltimore's Inner Harbor registered about 5.2 inches of rain. A rain gauge at Fort McHenry, a couple of miles east, measured 8.6 inches.

On the Choptank River north of Denton, waters rose to a depth of 14 feet -- the highest level since 1967. Floyd raised the depth of a tributary of the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro from 2 feet to above 15 feet. That shattered the previous record depth, 13.2 feet, set in 1996.

Northeast hit hard

The heaviest rains fell in the northeast corner of Maryland. "The whole tier of area from Cecil County across New Castle County in northern Delaware really got hit hard," Fisher said.

Cecil saw a foot of rain. On the Christiana River, Floyd triggered a 500-year flood -- meaning it caused heavy flows expected about once every 500 years. Parts of nearby Wilmington were inundated.

Elsewhere in the state, floodwaters damaged roads and small bridges.

Heavy rains don't always help recharge ground water, because the water runs off too quickly. But the water in the ponds that formed in farm fields and low-lying areas on the Eastern Shore should eventually find its way into the water table, Fisher said.

Western Maryland, meanwhile, remains dry.

Stream flows in Garrett County were far below normal yesterday.

"The Potomac is still in a drought situation, and will be until we get some rainfall that soaks in," Fisher said.

Still, for most the water shortage has turned into a surplus.

A month ago, farmers watched crops wither in the fields. Now, many fields are sopping wet.

"That's our greatest concern right now, the soggy ground conditions," said Ray Garibay, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Grain farmers hurt

Floyd's gusting winds, combined with wet soil, may have toppled acres of corn stalks, Garibay said. Before the storm, agriculture officials estimated that this year's corn harvest would fall to an average of just 85 bushels per acre, down 22 percent from last year. Now crop yields are likely to fall further.

But the same heavy rains that hurt grain farmers could help cattle breeders and dairy farms. "It's greening up our pastures, which allows a healthier harvesting of hay," Garibay said.

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