Maryland drought is worst since '02

Weekend could bring rain, stirred by distant tropical weather


More than five weeks after the last significant rainfall in Maryland, suburban lawns have turned to straw, the woods are tinder-dry, and farmers are fretting over whether to plant winter grains that might never germinate.

The state has slipped into the worst drought since 2002. And even as we grieve over recent weather calamities on the Gulf Coast, we hope for our own tropical storm.

"We are desperately in need of that kind of rainfall," said Douglas LeComte, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

And the area might get it, as early as this weekend, he said. But more on that shortly. First, the bad news.

Moderate to severe drought conditions have developed since August from the lower Hudson River Valley and southern New England to eastern portions of North Carolina and as far west as Ohio, eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.

Throughout September, Maryland homeowners have watched their lawns dry up and young ornamental shrubs wither.

"We anticipate a lot of need to replant ... in the spring," said Dave Myers, a University of Maryland agricultural extension agent in Anne Arundel County. The dry weather has also encouraged some plant pests and diseases.

"I had a lady call today about dogwood borers," he said.

The danger of wildfires is also rising.

"Right now we're heading into our fall fire season, and with no significant rainfall in a month, it's making things a little dicier," said Dan VanHassent, associate director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Forest Service.

"Urge people to be careful," he said. "If you can avoid [outdoor] burning, please do so."

The dry weather doubled the usual number of wildfires across Maryland in September, especially on the Eastern Shore.

"None have been really big, but with conditions as dry as they are, they tend to burn down into the ground, which makes them harder to fully extinguish," VanHassent said.

Leaves fall, risk rises

The state has not imposed any bans on open burning, but it has stopped issuing the burning permits that are required under certain circumstances.

Broader bans might be needed as leaves begin to fall, providing more fuel and allowing more drying sunshine to reach the forest floor, he said.

Maryland had plenty of rain for most of the summer. June and August saw normal rainfall at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. July produced a surplus of nearly 5 inches.

But the last significant rainfall in the region was just over an inch that fell Aug. 27 and 28 - more than five weeks ago.

Since then, the airport has recorded just 0.67 inch of rain, most of it falling Sept. 14-15. Many surrounding locations saw even less.

September 2005 was the driest on record in Washington and Martinsburg, W.Va. It was the 10th-driest in Baltimore since recordkeeping began in 1871, according to the National Weather Service.

Farmers have felt the effects, said Norman Bennett, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland agricultural statistics service.

"Pasture conditions are pretty poor at this stage," he said. About 36 percent are rated "poor" or "very poor," with an additional 45 percent rated only "fair."

Lack of hay

That will soon force farmers to switch their animals to hay. But with hayfields drying up, he said, "late-season cutting will probably be down quite a bit."

Nearly a quarter of the hay crop was recently reported "short" to "very short." Upcoming reports are expected to reflect even greater problems.

In Anne Arundel, Myers said, farmers with livestock are in a scramble for hay. "Prices have gone up and most people are holding on to hay they ordinarily would have sold," he said.

"We may get into a situation where we have to ship more hay into the state," the USDA's Bennett said. But with most nearby states facing similar problems, it's not at all clear where it would come from.

The drought developed late enough in the season to spare corn and some soybeans. But another crop forecast, due Oct. 12, might reflect reduced yields for late soybeans, he said.

There is additional worry about the small-grain crops, such as wheat and barley, that are typically planted in the fall for harvest in June or July.

"The problem is going to be germination," Bennett said. "If there's no rain, there's not going to be anything happening."

Myers said many farmers are holding off spending on seed and fertilizer for winter crops, hoping conditions might improve. "There's a lot of hesitation right now," he said.

Much rain needed

There is time for improvement. But the Climate Prediction Center says the region needs at least 3 to 6 inches of rain - and in some places up to 9 inches - to bring soil moisture back to normal.

"Farmers are pretty much the eternal optimists," Bennett said. "There's always hope for some good snow cover, which provides a nice slow release of moisture. So, we'll see. Hopefully things will turn out fine."

And maybe they will. The first break could come this weekend, LeComte said.

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