Dry month a reminder that drought continues

Parched November leaves water supplies at summer levels

November 25, 1999|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN STAFF

Sure, it's been damp and gray lately. But the month now drawing to a close has been one of the driest Novembers on record in Baltimore.

And, coming on the heels of a drier-than-normal October, the scarcity of rain since Hurricane Floyd barreled through in September has raised concerns about whether Maryland has returned to the parched patterns that led to last summer's severe drought.

"We're not necessarily out of the woods yet," said Gary Fisher, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Water stored in Baltimore's three reservoirs has fallen off by about 7 billion gallons since Floyd, according to data supplied by city public works officials. Supplies have slipped from 61 percent of capacity in late September to about 52 percent. That's roughly where it was in early August, when the drought emergency was declared.

Looking back over a century of weather records, Fisher said, USGS statisticians found that "we've never had a major drought that lasted only a year or two years. They've always lasted several years."

The last major drought here hit hardest in 1966, but it stretched from 1964 through the end of the decade.

"We're certainly not in a panic situation yet," Fisher said. "But because [water supply] conditions are still somewhat depleted, we have to look forward to summer and potential problems."

November has produced only 0.62 inches of rain at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. That's far short of the 3.32-inch November average during the past 30 years. If there's no relief by Tuesday, this would qualify as the area's fourth-driest November since 1871.

Airport instruments have recorded a persistently dry pattern that began in July 1998. Only four months since then have produced more rain than normal.

Maryland's summer drought emergency was ended by three days of torrential thunderstorms in August and two tropical systems -- Dennis and Floyd -- in September. Together, they added 10 inches of rain beyond the averages for those two months. Since then, the rains have faded away.

October rains stopped a half-inch short of the 2.98-inch average for the month. From Oct. 22 until the spits and drizzles of the past few days, BWI had seen only 0.58 inches of precipitation, and had 27 days with no rain.

Ground water levels and stream flows vary across Maryland. The Eastern Shore remains in good shape, Fisher said. Garrett County -- which saw little of Floyd's rains -- remains in moderate drought conditions.

In Central Maryland, stream flows have declined since the hurricane but remain within the low end of the normal range. Statewide ground water data won't be compiled until next week, but the water level at a monitoring well near Granite in Baltimore County has declined slightly since October, Fisher said.

"We seem to be in a generally dry regime again in the East, like we were late last year," said Todd J. Miner, a meteorologist with the Penn State Weather Communications Group.

A persistent pattern of high pressure systems over the eastern states has brought a delightful autumn. But it has deflected moisture-laden storms away from the region. When fronts have come through, Miner said, "they have been moisture-starved" -- cut off from sources of moisture in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.

Take September's tropical intruders out of the picture, he said, and a consistently dry weather pattern that has hung on since July 1998 remains.

Doug LeComte, a meteorologist at the National Center for Environmental Prediction, agreed. "The pattern that set up the drought is still continuing," he said. "The question is, will that change? It's a tough call."

The short-term forecasts suggest an inch of rain for the region during the next five days, he said. But long-range forecasts -- through March -- show no strong trend. The only trend that the National Weather Service computers can detect is that the months of January through March are likely to bring above-normal temperatures to the region.

Those computers provided no strong signals on rainfall last year, either, LeComte said, adding, "That's why nobody expected the drought to continue when it did start to affect us."

So, "if you're asking when things are going to change and stay changed," he said, "we don't know."

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