Rains have done little to ease Md.'s drought

Officials say area subsoil remains dry, streams and reservoirs are low

April 25, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The grass is green, and there's more rain in the forecast. So it is tempting to conclude that the long drought of 2001-2002 is finally over in Maryland.

Not so fast.

Near-normal rainfall in March and April has eased water shortages in Western Maryland. But officials say the rest of the state continues to suffer the same severe drought conditions that stretch from Maine to Georgia.

Maryland's soil is still dry, streams and water tables are at or near record lows for the season, and Baltimore's reservoirs have barely felt the recent showers and thunderstorms.

"The rains can be deceiving. We're not out of the woods by a long shot," said Baltimore Public Works Director George L. Winfield.

The city's reservoirs have stabilized at about 60 percent of capacity, even as Baltimore continues to supplement its water supplies with 140 million gallons drawn each day from the Susquehanna River.

"This time of year they should be way up at 95 percent," said public works spokesman Kurt Kocher.

The city's water customers have cut their consumption by about 7 percent. And they're being asked to keep on saving water voluntarily.

Winfield said he is reluctant to impose mandatory curbs until required by the state drought management plan, because less water consumption means lower water revenues.

"When those revenues are not received, next year we're looking at somehow making up the lost revenues," he said. "It's a very fine line."

(Conservation tips are available at www.baltimorecity.gov/government / dpw / savewater. html.)

On Maryland farms, April rains have wet the topsoil. That has allowed farmers to begin planting corn and revived pasture and hay crops. But normal rainfall might not be enough.

Forty percent of the state's topsoil was rated "short" or "very short" of moisture last week, according to the state Crop Reporting Service, compared with 2 percent last year.

The subsoil - deeper layers below 6 or 8 inches, where crops reach for water during summer dry spells - is even worse off.

Seventy-eight percent of Maryland's subsoil was rated "short" or "very short" of moisture, compared with 4 percent last year.

The crunch will come this summer, said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

"Say we continue to get these little carry-on rains until the first of July," he said. The water stays in the topsoil, and plants are shallow-rooted. "If we get a prolonged dry spell, two weeks or more, we're in trouble. We start killing plants."

The region endured six straight months of below-normal rainfall from September 2001 through February 2002. While the rainfall deficits totaled more than a foot in some areas, water tables, stream flows and reservoir levels dropped. And they're still low.

"We're getting normal rainfalls, but all that's doing is sustaining the status quo. We're not really making up that deficit yet," said Gary Fisher, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Water tables and stream flows in the Piedmont Region are at or near record lows in many locations, and some wells have dried up.

On April 5, Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a drought emergency in Central Maryland and imposed mandatory water use restrictions. He excluded communities served by the Baltimore and Washington water systems.

Since then, more than 2 1/3 inches of rain - almost exactly normal for the period - has fallen at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Other spots have seen more.

The rain made a difference in Western Maryland, where some streams were flowing at record highs earlier this week.

Cumberland, in Allegany County, lifted its mandatory water restrictions Tuesday night. Koon Lake reservoir has risen nearly 22 feet since mid-March, increasing from 39 percent of capacity to 80 percent.

Normally, the reservoirs are spilling over in April, said Nancy Hausrath, of the Cumberland engineer's office: "We don't feel as though we're out of the woods, but there is a certain comfort level."

Just northwest of Cumberland, in Savage, the springs that serve a portion of the town's water system have revived, and the local volunteer fire company has stopped hauling water to fill the system's cistern.

"We still have water restrictions on so people don't go crazy with it," said Savage Water Co. President Dan Williams. "But we're holding our own."

Drought extends along most of the East Coast north of Florida. Among the worst-hit areas is southern New Jersey.

Temperatures and evaporation rates there are rising, making it harder for new rain to reach the water table. Without extraordinary rains, or a hurricane, said Richard H. Kropp, chief of the New Jersey district of the USGS, the southern counties - already under mandatory water restrictions - face tighter curbs and ecological impacts this summer.

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