Concerns sprout during arid season

Weather: As Maryland records its second-driest winter, many worry about water supplies and crops in spring and summer.

February 18, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Maryland's earthworms are still on duty this winter. Regional extension specialist Jon Traunfeld has spotted them munching merrily through the top six inches of soil, where it ought to be too cold.

On the lower Eastern Shore, aphids have emerged early to trouble the winter grain crops. In suburbia, some crocuses are up, and daffodils weeks ago began to poke shoots into the lengthening daylight.

This mild and very dry winter - one of the driest on record in Baltimore - has been great for critters, and for people who hate snow and ice and long for an early spring.

But it also has kindled worries about water supplies and agriculture as spring and summer approach.

"If this pattern doesn't change - if we don't get a good couple of soakings over the next few weeks - farmers are going to have a real hard time," said Donald Vandry, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Temperatures since November at Baltimore-Washington International Airport have averaged more than 5 degrees above normal. Heating degree-days - a measure of the demand for heating fuels - are down 16 percent this season, saving homeowners a bundle.

But the mild weather likely has benefited insects that otherwise would have been killed by cold, said University of Maryland entomologist Paula M. Shrewsbury.

Look for more eastern tent caterpillars, fall webworms, Japanese beetles, and honey-locust and yucca plant bugs, she said. And, if the spring is dry, there will be fewer fungal pathogens to sicken the gypsy moth caterpillars that feed on oak leaves, or the chinch bugs that damage turf grass.

A big snowstorm would have helped. At BWI, 2.3 inches of snow has fallen this winter, all in one Jan. 19 storm. (Baltimore hasn't seen a snowfall deeper than 4 inches in more than two years.)

Moderate to extreme drought conditions are parching the East Coast from Georgia to Maine, prompting a patchwork of drought warnings, drought emergencies, and voluntary and mandatory restrictions on water use.

At BWI, precipitation has been below normal every month since August. The rainfall deficit since then is more than 10 inches.

Showers are forecast for later this week. But the December-through-February period ranks as the second-driest in 121 years of recordkeeping in Baltimore, with 4.11 inches of precipitation recorded at BWI. Only the winter of 1976-1977 was drier, according to climatologist Kathryn Vreeland of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.

"When we have droughts in the summertime, we say all we need is a hurricane. But that's too far off. We need something before that. ... We're already seeing people with wells going dry, and we see reservoirs at half or less of capacity," Vreeland said. "Once the trees start leafing out, and everything starts sucking up ground water in the spring - unless we get a major spring storm, there will be quite an impact."

Nick Pindale, owner of the wholesale Blue Mount Nurseries Inc. in Monkton, said the weakest of the four wells on his property has dried up. Rather than sprinkling, he said, "we're putting a lot of plants on drip irrigation ... and we are hand-watering."

"This is the type of stuff you put up with in summer," he said. "The warning bells are going off earlier this time."

Water tables are low. At least 18 Maryland streams - about half the total monitored statewide by the U.S. Geological Survey - were flowing yesterday at record lows for the date.

If pastures don't get a watering, Vandry said, livestock owners might have to choose between buying hay for their animals or butchering them.

Farmers also face hard decisions about what to plant and how much. Many soils are rock-hard and will be difficult to till. The lack of soil moisture also will discourage germination. And if normal rains don't resume, crops that do sprout might be at risk.

"It's important for farmers to review their crop insurance," Vandry said.

Baltimore's decision last month to tap the Susquehanna River to take pressure off the dwindling reserves in its three reservoirs appears to be paying off. The reservoir levels have stabilized at about 58 percent of capacity since the city began taking 100 million gallons a day from the river.

"That's good," said public works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. "Of course, we'd like to have [the reservoirs] go up." Normal water levels at this time of year would be about 85 percent.

Prettyboy Reservoir, which supplies Loch Raven Reservoir and the Montebello treatment plant, was 35 feet below capacity last week.

Pleas for water conservation are helping, Kocher said. The city's 1.8 million consumers are using 17 million gallons less per day than the average for this time of year - a decrease of almost 7 percent. "We'd really like to get up to a 20 percent reduction," he said.

If water supplies across the state don't increase soon, authorities might declare a drought emergency and impose water use restrictions - like those imposed statewide in August 1999 and this year by a growing list of Maryland municipalities.

For now, residents can't do much except conserve water, plant early, mulch and consider xeroscaping - the use of more drought-tolerant plantings, said Traunfeld of the Cooperative Extension Service's Home and Garden Information Center.

If the drought continues, shade trees might bloom and leaf out normally in the spring, he said, only to have the leaves dry up and fall off as the trees exhaust the available ground water. A hard freeze might kill early blossoms and cause die-backs in woody plants and trees.

"But the plants won't die," he said.

For an Extension Service fact sheet on drought and xeroscaping, call 800-342-2507.

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