Drought forecast in much of U.S.

Some states face crisis

Md. warned to expect less rain than usual

March 14, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Broad swaths of the United States, from Arizona to Georgia and from Nebraska to Ohio, face worsening drought conditions this spring, with potentially costly consequences for agriculture, navigation, water supplies and tourism, federal officials said yesterday.

In its first-ever spring drought forecast, the U.S. Commerce Department said federal agencies are mobilizing to provide drought assistance to the affected regions. Officials urged state and local authorities to take steps to prepare for the expected water shortages.

"The news is not good," said Commerce Secretary William M. Daley. "The drought of 1999 remains with us in the new century, and our data indicate drought conditions are probably going to get worse before they get better."

Maryland and Virginia, hit hard by drought last summer, are not included in the federal warning. But both states are expected to get less rain than usual this spring, continuing a pattern of scarce rains that began in July 1998.

Maryland has had five months of above-average precipitation in the past 21 months. Long-term drought conditions persist in Garrett County.

Other parts of the country face far worse prospects this spring.

Two-thirds of the Texas winter wheat crop has been rated in poor condition or worse. Agriculture officials said it was too early to know whether grain prices would be affected by the drought, because well-timed rains could head off serious damage.

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama recorded their driest February in 106 years of recordkeeping, with no relief in sight.

Low water in the upper Great Lakes has forced shipping interests to lighten their freighters by loading less cargo.

Wildfires have blackened 208,000 acres this year, nearly four times the acreage burned by this time last year. Federal fire crews are being assigned in expectation of more fires this spring. Some are already battling fires in Kentucky.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the Clinton administration's National Drought Policy Commission will issue a report this spring urging stepped-up federal investment in drought preparedness, water conservation and drought-mitigation projects.

He said Clinton will ask Congress for an additional $1 billion in the fiscal 2001 budget to make crop insurance more accessible and affordable to farmers.

"We must have a drought policy that will provide farmers with the tools to withstand drought, not just survive it," Glickman said.

Droughts are a normal part of climate variation. They cause an average of $6 billion in agricultural losses each year in the United States, twice as much as floods.

In some years, droughts cause extraordinary damage. The drought of 1988 -- which affected many of the regions facing drought this year -- was the most costly weather disaster in U.S. history, with $40 billion in losses.

Forecasters blamed this year's deepening drought on La Nina conditions in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, which have persisted since July 1998.

Abnormally cold surface water temperatures during La Ninas cause shifts in global weather patterns. These frequently produce heavy rains in the Northwest, drought in the Southeast and more tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

Those tropical storms and hurricanes often provide the moisture needed to break droughts.

Last year, it took heavy rains from hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, and thunderstorms accompanying a series of cold fronts, to end the drought in Central and Eastern Maryland. The state's western counties received little relief.

Low stream flows

The storms provided no relief beyond the East Coast. Stream flows in most of the East are well below normal. Some are at record lows for this time of year, said Charles G. Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We should be seeing ground water recharge taking place now, and we're not seeing that, either," he said. "Think of it as not having enough money to put in the bank. When the dry summer hits, we may not have enough in savings to get through without problems."

Improved data

Weather forecasters did not predict last summer's drought in the mid-Atlantic states.

This year's forecasts were made possible by improved data gathering and more powerful computers, said D. James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

"The government can't guarantee a drenching rain this spring, but we can now provide early warning so people can plan for heat waves and dryness," Daley said. There will also be seasonal forecasts on flood, drought, hurricanes, heat and storms.

There was one bit of good news among the drought warnings. "We see limited risk of flooding this spring," Daley said.

Dry times in Md.

Sixteen of the past 21 months have seen below-average precipitation at BWI (months with above-average rainfall in bold).

Date Normal Actual (inches)

June '98 3.67 3.23

July '98 3.69 1.42

Aug. '98 3.92 0.91

Sept. '98 3.41 1.27

Oct. '98 2.98 1.06

Nov. '98 3.32 1.13

Dec. '98 3.41 1.27

Jan. '99 3.05 4.70

Feb. '99 3.12 2.65

Mar. '99 3.38 3.46

April '99 3.09 2.27

May '99 3.72 1.72

June '99 3.67 2.04

July '99 3.69 2.06

Aug. '99 3.92 6.14

Sept. '99 3.41 11 .50

Oct. '99 2.98 2.48

Nov. '99 3.32 1.95

Dec. '99 3.41 2.96

Jan. '00 3.05 3.64

Feb. '00 3.23 2.01

Mar. '00 3.38 0.37

Note: March 2000 rainfall through 3/12

SOURCE: National Weather Service

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