Maryland autumn 2nd-driest on record

Water use restricted

wildfire danger high

November 21, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Thirty-four days have passed without significant rain across Maryland, and the deepening drought is now threatening winter grain crops, parching creeks and pastures, and constricting some community water supplies.

Stream flows are dipping to record lows, and the wildfire danger remains high just as the hunting season gets under way.

Even the state's fish need rain. Low spring flows have forced the state's biggest hatcheries to stop feeding their rainbow trout, and that could mean smaller trout for anglers next spring.

"Everybody's looking for rain," said Mike Bell of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Carroll County.

The next chance for showers is Saturday, though forecasters aren't expecting enough to break the dry spell.

The winter forecast calls for more normal precipitation. But this otherwise glorious autumn of blue skies and mild temperatures so far qualifies as the second-driest on record in Maryland.

Persistent high pressure over the Eastern United States has steered most storms away and dried out the few cold fronts that have pushed through, said Parks Camp, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

The sprinkle of rain yesterday morning was the first this month at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. But it contributed just three-hundredths of an inch to the paltry four-hundredths that has fallen since Oct. 16.

"The amount we got here in Annapolis wasn't enough to wipe the bottom of my rain gauge," said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

It was way too little for the state's farmers. Evans said one-third of the winter wheat and barley is now in poor to very poor condition. "That's kind of unique at this time of year." The small-grain crops are planted in the fall and harvested in June and July.

Donald Lippy, who has about 1,300 acres of small grains in fields straddling the border of Carroll and Baltimore counties, said his crop is probably struggling.

In 35 years of farming, Lippy said, "I've never seen it this dry in the fall, so I have no clue how much it'll hurt until next spring. I guess it will depend on when the next rain is and what happens this winter."

Evans said the grains need moisture to germinate and, once germinated, they need moisture to send down a root system that can survive winter freezes.

The lack of rain has also hurt some Maryland dairy and cattle farmers, who can frequently count on pastures to feed their livestock through November.

This year, Evans said, "they have no pasture, and haven't had pasture in some cases going back to July." So, they've had to buy grain and hay to feed their cows.

"That's an unanticipated expense," he said. "In some cases it might be the deciding factor that would put a dairy farm out of business."

Since Sept. 1, instruments at BWI have recorded 2.24 inches of rain - more than 7 inches below the 9.7-inch norm for the September-through-November period, with just 10 days left to catch up.

Scarce rains have sent stream flows to less than 10 percent of normal in 26 of the 44 rivers and creeks monitored in Maryland and Delaware by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Six of those streams were at record lows yesterday, said USGS hydrologist Gary Fisher. Groundwater levels continue to drop, at a time of year when they should be rising.

Falling water tables have slowed the springs that feed the Albert Powell state fish hatchery outside Hagerstown. With too little water to flush the tanks properly, hatchery managers stopped feeding nearly 500,000 rainbow trout three weeks ago.

"They have sufficient stored fat at this point so that it doesn't bother them," said Bob Lunsford, state director of freshwater fisheries. "But fishermen will find they'll be a little smaller this spring."

City officials in Westminster imposed water use restrictions Nov. 12 amid growing concern about low water levels in eight town wells and a reservoir on Lucabaugh Mill Road.

Manchester, Mount Airy and Taneytown have also curtailed water use.

The water curbs in Westminster prohibit lawn watering and car washing, and they require golf courses to use 80 percent less water on fairways.

"I've never seen a drought last so long in the season," said Hank L. Majewski, who has owned the Wakefield Valley Golf Club in Westminster since 1983.

Frost and morning dew have helped keep the course green, he said. But newly planted trees are in trouble. "We've already lost six or seven pine trees we planted last fall," he said. "We won't know the extent of the damage from this until two years from now."

In Harford, County Executive James Harkins has asked residents to begin voluntary water conservation measures, from filling the dishwasher before running it to taking shorter showers.

Across the state, the pace of wildfires has subsided a bit, thanks to higher humidity and a sprinkle of rain, said Monte Mitchell, fire supervisor with the state Forest Service.

The statewide ban on outdoor burning remains in effect, however, and the fire danger in the woods and fields remained high.

With the goose season now open, and the firearms season for deer starting Saturday, Mitchell urged Maryland hunters to be cautious with fires and cigarettes.

Homeowners were being urged to water evergreen shrubs, such as azaleas, rhododendrons and hollies. "Even though they go dormant in winter, they can dry out really bad if they don't get some water" before the ground freezes and winter winds begin to dry them out, said Robert Scott, perennial plants manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville.

"You can actually lose those if they don't get some moisture to work with," he said. "They need a good soaking."

Sun staff writers Maria Blackburn and Lane Harvey Brown contributed to this article.

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