Rain a drop in the bucket for drought

Reservoirs buoyed slightly, but rainfall far shy of average

Much more is needed

Weather concerns turn to flood watches and potential freeze

March 21, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Spring arrived in Central Maryland yesterday bearing a half-inch to an inch of desperately needed rain.

Windshield wipers slapped, gutters gurgled and hundreds of millions of gallons of water washed into reservoirs, wells and springs parched by six months of drought.

"Give us more! Give us more!" said Kurt Kocher, a Baltimore public works spokesman. "The drought is still far from over."

The National Weather Service drove home the point, saying that all the rain this month has trimmed barely a third of an inch from the city's rainfall deficit. The Baltimore area remains 12.55 inches short of the precipitation it normally receives by this time of year.

What's needed, Kocher said, is "several months with this weather pattern staying with us, where we get a few days each week of good, steady, soaking rain."

Even so, two of the city's three reservoirs have edged upward in recent days thanks to the rain, coupled with voluntary conservation efforts and an increase in the amount of water being drawn from the Susquehanna River.

The rain, mostly gentle in Maryland, spread relief to other parts of the drought-stricken East Coast, too. But it has caused deadly flooding in parts of the Appalachians and the South. At least seven lives have been lost in Tennessee, and hundreds of homes have been damaged or destroyed from Arkansas to West Virginia.

In Maryland, flood watches were posted yesterday for Garrett and Allegany counties, where forecasters warned of up to 2 inches of rain. But in most parts of the state, the rain spelled only relief.

The precipitation brought the month's accumulation to 2.92 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. That makes this the wettest month at BWI since August 2001.

But it will take another inch of rain in the next 10 days for March to end with a surplus. The weather service was predicting mostly sunny weather through the weekend.

Today is expected to be windy, with gusts of up to 40 mph predicted. After that, the most immediate weather worry will be a hard freeze tomorrow night, with clear skies and lows of 20 to 25 degrees by Saturday morning.

"The fruit growers, particularly people with peach trees, have reason to be concerned," said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Mild weather has coaxed many peach trees into early bloom, Evans said, and three hours or more below 28 degrees could damage them and reduce the groves' yield. He added that greenhouse operators should take precautions with nursery stock.

In tiny Mount Savage in Allegany County, the rain filled streams and revived the town's springs.

Volunteer firefighters -- who have hauled water from nearby Corriganville every weekend since October to keep a cistern full after the town's wells and springs failed -- were called out yesterday to pump out two flooded basements.

"I just love it," said Danny Williams, president of the town's water company. "If it keeps this up for another day or so, it's not going to cure the problem, but it will be a hell of a lot of water we will not have to haul on Saturday."

The town's drought-pinched wells had not shown much improvement, he said. They're deeper than the springs and will take longer to respond to the rain.

Twelve miles away in Cumberland, 2 inches of rain during the past five days added 130 million gallons to the city's reservoirs. That's an additional two weeks' water supply for 50,000 customers who had been told they would run out of water in June unless the weather changed.

Koon Lake -- one of two reservoirs that serve Cumberland -- has risen more than two feet since last week, but it is still almost 27 feet below capacity. "We still have a long way to go," said Nancy Hausrath, a city engineer, "but the rain certainly has helped."

Baltimore's Loch Raven Reservoir has risen from 70 percent of capacity on March 1 to 74 percent yesterday, Kocher said.

That's due partly to the rain. But it's also a consequence of conservation efforts, which have cut consumption 6 percent to 7 percent compared with this time last year, and increased withdrawals from the Susquehanna River.

The city increased pumping last week from the Susquehanna by 40 percent, to 140 million gallons a day, to spare the dwindling water in its reservoirs.

Prettyboy Reservoir stood at 33 percent of capacity yesterday morning, up from 25 percent March 1. Liberty Reservoir had not responded to the rains and stood yesterday at 60 percent of capacity.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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