If dry weather sticks, 1910 record won't hold water

With less than an inch of rain in state this month, farmers hope for clouds

March 31, 2006|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN REPORTER

Without significant rainfall before midnight tonight, this month will skid into the books as the driest March since record-keeping for Baltimore began in 1871.

And any rain that does fall probably won't reverse the "moderate" drought conditions declared this week across Southern Maryland and the lower Eastern Shore.

The dry weather has already put some winter grain crops behind schedule, and parched fields could force farmers to delay spring planting, agriculture officials said.

But the situation is not critical yet. In fact, "It's been kinda nice this spring, compared to a lot of springs," when farm machinery gets stuck in muddy fields, said Jim Lewis, the extension agent for Caroline County. "But if it continues like this, the story may change in a few weeks."

Through yesterday, only 0.18 inch of precipitation was recorded at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. If tonight's rain is scant, the month's total will undercut the current record of 0.46 inch, set during the Taft administration - in 1910.

Washington has been even drier, with just 0.05 inch at Reagan National Airport, and 0.07 inch at Dulles - both record lows.

Dry weather has raised the danger of wildfires across the state. Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks yesterday imposed a ban on open-air burning in state-owned parks, forests and wildlife management areas, except in Garrett County.

In a statement, Franks called the measure "necessary to ensure the public's safety and protect our natural resources."

The policy bars campfires and charcoal grilling on state lands, but the use of propane grills is still allowed. Officials also asked residents to restrict open fires voluntarily elsewhere in Maryland.

The Forest Service has responded to 352 wildfires in March, a near-record and nearly 2 1/2 times the March average.

The dry spell actually began in February. BWI Marshall has seen only a little more than a quarter-inch of rain since the big snowstorm Feb. 11-12.

Climatologists are blaming La Nina, a pattern of abnormally cool waters that prevails now in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean - the flip side of El Nino.

That phenomenon has set up a pattern of highs and lows across North America that has left our region affected by a persistent low in the western Atlantic Ocean.

"That tends to be a dry pattern" for our region, cutting off the flow of wet storms from the Gulf, said drought specialist Douglas LeComte at the national Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs.

La Nina typically means dry weather for Texas and the Southeast, he said. "And there is a tendency for dryness in the Southeast to creep up the Eastern seaboard this time of year."

It also tends to persist well into the spring, he added. Although April will likely be wetter than March, he said, "We could very well have a dry tendency going on for another couple of months."

After that, forecast models show wetter conditions by summer, he said. But "it's always a tough call when you go ahead that far."

Thanks in part to low water use at this time of year, the lack of rain hasn't affected the three reservoirs that feed Baltimore City's regional water system. Loch Raven Reservoir is less than an inch below the dam, and public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said Liberty and Prettyboy Reservoirs are "overflowing."

But rivers and streams elsewhere across Maryland are running well below normal levels for this time of year. "This is springtime, usually the wettest time of year, and here we're having the driest time of year. It's pretty amazing," said Wendy McPherson, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Baltimore.

River flows to the Chesapeake Bay have been below normal this month. If the dry weather continues, that could affect life in the Chesapeake, according to Scott Phillips, the Geological Survey bay coordinator. "The reduced nutrient and sediment loads could result in improved dissolved oxygen and water clarity this summer," he said in a prepared statement.

But higher salinity could make oysters more vulnerable to disease, damage fresh-water species of underwater grasses and increase the number of jellyfish.

Groundwater is already being affected. Geological Survey monitoring wells in Frederick and Charles counties show water levels at 20-year record lows for March, McPherson said. And another in Somerset County is close to a record.

"If we don't get some rain soon, this won't be good for water resources for the summertime," she said. Still, it's early in the year, and things can change. "If April is a rainy month, we could come out of this," she added.

Maryland's farmers hope so. While there's still time before they must begin planting corn and soybeans, some chores are being delayed now, said Eddie Johnson, the Maryland extension agent for the lower Eastern Shore.

For example, there's no point in laying down plastic for vegetable beds, because it's meant to hold in the moisture, and there isn't any. The soil is also too dry to plow and mound properly.

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