Md. bracing for a long, dry summer

Rain: Farmers and forecasters worry that several months of below-average precipitation might turn into a full-blown drought.

May 09, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

It has been the best of times to fix the roof, the worst of times to coax a seedling from the dust.

With no measurable rain since April 18 in much of Maryland, farm fields are drying out. River flows from the Youghiogheny to the Patapsco are at a fraction of the usual rates, and dropping. And six weeks from the official start of summer, Marylanders are already watering their lawns and gardens.

"It's like somebody turned the damn rain machine off around the middle of April," said Tony Evans, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It's too early to hit the panic button, but the concern is there."

The Baltimore forecast had called for a chance of showers overnight, today, and again Friday and Saturday. But the front dried up in the afternoon, and all mention of rain was dropped from the forecast until Saturday.

"I'm pretty nervous about the summer if we don't get some rain in," said Andy Woodcock, a forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Sterling, Va.

Doug Lecomte, senior meteorologist at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, said near-normal rainfall expected in the next several weeks should keep conditions from getting much worse.

Looking ahead to summer, he said, the forecast becomes more difficult.

"Hot, dry weather would very quickly turn this into a full-blown drought," he said. Summer thunderstorms could avert a drought, but with evaporation rates rising, the storms would be unlikely to erase soil moisture shortages.

Some area homeowners are watching their lawns turn brown, and they're calling for help.

"They think it might be a pest," said Chris Forth, an agronomist at TruGreen-ChemLawn in Baltimore.

He tells some callers they're cutting their grass too short for the dry weather. He has raised his mower blade to nearly 4 inches to keep his lawn green without watering.

"It's too early to really be recommending irrigation," he said. "It's going to be a long summer."

Maryland is not alone. Lawns are drying up from Georgia to Massachusetts. Streamflows in the mid-Atlantic states have dropped to levels not seen since August 1999, near the end of that summer's drought.

Lecomte blamed a persistent high-pressure system over the eastern third of the country. The "blocking" high has deflected storms or dried them out before they could cross the Appalachians into Maryland. The Central Plains, from the Dakotas south to Texas, have been unusually wet.

In recent weeks, moderate to severe drought conditions have developed from North Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley to the Carolinas, southwestern Virginia, West Virginia and into Garrett County.

It has also been dry in Florida and the Pacific Northwest.

The shift in weather patterns, Lecomte said, could be linked to La Nina conditions - abnormally cool water in the eastern Pacific, off the west coast of South America - and cyclical atmospheric pressure patterns in the North Atlantic, called the North Atlantic Oscillation, during the winter.

"There is some research that shows that, during the winter, if you're having La Nina and a negative North Atlantic Oscillation, that does indicate a tendency for drought the following summer from the lower Mississippi to the Tennessee Valley into New England," he said.

In Maryland, soil moisture surveys released yesterday found that 48 percent of the state's agricultural topsoil was rated "short" or "very short" of water. That compares with 6 percent for the comparable week last year, Evans said.

Subsoil moisture - a measure of water reserves below the top 6 to 8 inches of dirt - was found "short" or "very short" in 19 percent of the soils tested, twice last year's reading.

The dry soil is affecting crops. Evans said 10 percent of the state's small-grain crops - wheat and barley planted last fall - are rated in poor or very poor condition.

"It's not drastic, but it's an indicator," he said. "We're at a point where things can get worse in a [big] hurry."

With grain prices depressed, a very good yield per acre becomes critical to profitability.

Forty percent of the summer corn seeds have been planted, and rain is needed soon to ensure a "good stand," Evans said. "If they germinate, and it gets dry, a lot of them will die in that initial 10 to 12 days after germination."

"An inch or more in the next four to five days would be a godsend," he said.

Maryland has been on a rainfall roller coaster in recent years.

The summer of 1999 saw the climax of a 15-month drought. Stream and reservoir levels fell, and wells in parts of Maryland dried up. Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a drought emergency that lasted 55 days. Statewide watering restrictions were imposed for a month.

The 1999 drought ended in a three-day siege of torrential thunderstorms in late August, topped off by the remnants of Hurricane Floyd in September, the wettest September in 65 years.

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