Md. drought deepens, no relief in sight

The past 11 1/2 months are Baltimore's driest on record since 1871

`A drought like we've never seen'

Reservoirs, wells drying and fire danger growing

The Drought of 2001-2002

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

The drought that has parched Maryland for nearly a year now, browning lawns, wilting crops and draining Baltimore's reservoirs, is deepening to historic proportions.

The past 11 1/2 months has been the driest September-to-mid-August period in Baltimore since record-keeping began in 1871, according to the National Weather Service.

There has been no rain for two weeks at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and none is forecast until Saturday at the earliest.

Ground-water levels and stream flows in much of the state are falling below record lows set during historic droughts in the 1930s and 1960s.

"This is a drought like we've never seen," said hydrologist Wendy McPherson at the U.S. Geological Survey in Baltimore.

Marylanders are seeing the drought's impact on their lawns, in the premature fall of leaves from sycamores and tulip poplars. And their sprinklers are silent.

Most of Maryland's population is living under state or local water-use restrictions. And as crops and pastures wilt, the governor is seeking federal disaster aid for farmers over most of the state.

With wildfires already flaring in parched woodlands, the State Forest and Park Service is bracing for what could be the worst autumn fire season ever.

Here are some of the dry statistics:

Since Sept. 1, 2001, BWI has recorded just 23.86 inches of precipitation. That's less than 57 percent of the norm for the period, a shortfall of more than 18 inches. There's been less than an inch of rainfall since July 27.

The water volume in Baltimore's three reservoirs, which stood at 53 percent of capacity when mandatory curbs were imposed on Aug. 10, has fallen to 49 percent, a level not seen at least since the 1960s, city officials said.

The summer of 2002 ranks as the ninth-driest on record in Baltimore, with 5.54 inches of rain since June 1. The driest was in 1930, when just 3.81 inches of rain fell.

Water woes

Most of Central Maryland has been under a drought emergency and mandatory water restrictions since April. Carroll and Frederick county officials say they have issued only warnings to residents who violate the bans.

Last week, Baltimore issued its first, and so far only, citation and fine.

Robin Forbes of the 5600 block of Govane Ave. says he didn't learn about the mandatory curbs until the evening of Aug. 13, when a city police officer pulled up and ordered him to stop washing his car.

Forbes, 53, a former truck driver, said he had returned home from two weeks in Tennessee the night before and was trying to scrub the grime and bugs from his Chevrolet Caprice and his camper.

"I took a bucket of water and a brush, and I was brushing off the car with it, and I sprayed it a little bit with water," he said.

He said he didn't hear what the officer was saying at first. Upon being warned again, "I said I didn't know anything about no water ban, ... and I didn't need his aggravated attitude."

Forbes put away his hose. But there was some shoving and shouting, and Forbes was handcuffed and arrested for failure to obey a police officer, a misdemeanor. He spent 24 hours at Central Booking, and faces trial this morning in District Court.

Police spokesman Troy Harris said Forbes also was ticketed for violating the watering ban and fined $100. City police responded to more than 100 watering complaints over the weekend, Harris said, but warnings sufficed and no one else has been ticketed.

Since the mandatory bans went into effect Aug. 10, average daily water consumption has declined by almost 10 percent, said Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.

The city has not yet ordered commercial water users to curb consumption.

"You have to make sure you don't hinder the economy of the city, that you don't infringe on people's livelihoods," he said.

But that day may be coming.

If and when a Phase 2 drought emergency is declared, large commercial users will be ordered to cut consumption by 10 percent.

"I'd say we're closer than not" to going into the next phase, Kocher said. "If it doesn't rain, it's a good possibility."

More than half the city's water is consumed by about 1,000 large commercial users who buy water at reduced bulk rates, Kocher said. It's a rate structure that cities in more arid states have abandoned to encourage conservation.

Baltimore has kept it, Kocher said, because it's cheaper to serve big customers, and "it helps maintain our industrial base, which is important for jobs."

Across much of the state, meanwhile, ground-water and stream levels are still falling, and residents are facing long waits for new wells to be drilled. Residential wells in Carroll County have been failing at 10 times the normal rate, according to county drought manager James Slater.

One well in Harford County last month was more than 3 1/2 feet below the record set in 1965.

"It's widespread and severe," said McPherson, the federal hydrologist. "Hopefully, this drought is making people realize how precious water is."

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