Rainy relief expected all week

Precipitation arrives after long dry spell

May 22, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

One drizzly weekend has finally doused a monthlong stretch of dry weather in Maryland. It has also perked up parched lawns, eased allergy complaints and restored hope to the state's farmers.

"This is a perfect rain. Every bit of it is going into the ground," said Robert Tibbs, who farms 250 acres in Level, northwest of Havre de Grace, in Harford County.

Although the rain doesn't end the threat of summertime water shortages in some Maryland communities and came too late to undo the damage to crops from the past four dry weeks, it still brought relief.

"It's a major help. This is a million-dollar rain," said Ted Haas, a regional agronomy specialist with the University of Maryland Extension Service in Centreville.

Best of all, more rain is on the way. The National Weather Service forecast called for light rain and drizzle overnight, showers and possible thunderstorms today and tonight.

Jeff Warner of the Penn State Weather Communications Group credited the combination of a slow-moving warm front to the south and easterly winds bearing moisture-laden air from the Atlantic.

After a break tomorrow, he said, a series of weak disturbances moving up the East Coast will draw more showers off the Atlantic for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

All told, forecasters are expecting an additional half-inch to an inch of rainfall by tomorrow, and more later in the week.

The rain gauges at Baltimore-Washington International Airport recorded a scant 0.01 inch of rain between April 19 and May 17.

Then, late Friday, the skies turned gray. By late yesterday, after a weekend of rain and drizzle, the May rainfall total at BWI had climbed to nearly an inch.

Tibbs, the Harford County farmer, enjoyed every drop. He said he'd stopped planting his corn when the ground became too dry and hard for his machinery. What had been planted has not done well.

"The fact that it's been so cold, the corn hasn't been growing properly," he said. "The whole season is behind."

Strawberries are a third smaller than usual, and it will take more of them to make up a quart. "Then the farmer doesn't get as much for them," said Tibbs.

The steady, gentle rain should bring relief to allergy sufferers. The dry weather brought persistently high pollen counts and more sneezing, wheezing and weeping than they have experienced in years.

Daily pollen counts taken by David Kerxton, a respiratory therapist in Owings Mills, consistently exceeded a measure of 100 and even flirted with 2,000. A count of 100 grains is considered enough to produce severe symptoms.

When the rain returned, it washed pollen off trees and out of the air, lowering the pollen count yesterday to 21 grains per cubic meter of air.

But no one was more relieved to see the rain than farmers, especially on the Eastern Shore, which soaked up as much as 1.75 inches in some locations, much less in others.

"The old-timers tell me this is the driest spring they have ever seen, " said Haas.

If this week had turned out like last week, he said, "they would have been in major trouble."

Corn planting was 80 percent to 90 percent complete, but by last week it had come to a stop. Fields had become too hard and dry for the planting machinery, and the soil too parched for germination.

"I didn't want the seed to start sprouting and not have sufficient moisture to get it out of the ground, and then have it die," Haas said.

Unfortunately, many of the cornfields had already been treated with "pre-emergent" weed killers that need a half-inch of rain within two weeks of application to do their job. While waiting for rain, the herbicides in many fields lost their effectiveness.

Now, said Haas, many farmers will have to spray their fields again, at a cost of $25 or $30 an acre - $12,500 for the typical 500-acre Shore farm.

"That's a major loss due to the fact they're looking at $2 [per bushel of] corn this year," he said. "I would say that would be very questionable - whether they could make any money at those prices."

The dry weather also delayed the start of soybean planting. Now that it's raining again, farmers will soon be getting that crop into the ground.

The scarce moisture will also reduce the weight, and thus the value, of grain from the winter wheat crop. And the shorter wheat stalks will mean less straw to market, and higher prices, later this year, Haas said.

As welcome as it is, the recent rainfall has not erased the threat of summer water shortages for some Marylanders.

Washington, D.C., and Maryland communities that depend on the Potomac River for their water supplies are still watching what hydrologists are calling "dangerously low" streamflows in the Potomac watershed.

Jim Manning, spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey in Baltimore, said the weekend rains sent river flows surging higher.

But "the streams are going to drop back down," Manning said. "In the next couple of days they're going to be back down to dangerous levels again."

All three reservoirs serving Baltimore-area consumers remain near capacity, according to city public works officials.

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