Summer's rainy start dried out fast

Maryland crops, streams are showing damage


After June's torrential rains ended, it looked as if Maryland was set for the summer. Lawns were green, everything was growing like crazy, and there was water everywhere.

But since July 1 less than 3 inches has fallen at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Lawns and parks have browned to a crisp; streams, fields and pastures have dried up; and crop reports have begun to reflect mounting damage.

"Depending on how you define a drought, I'd say we're teetering on the edge," said Doug LeComte, a drought specialist at the federal Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs.

In terms of rain, the forecast is not promising. This week is expected to remain sunny, warm and dry, as high pressure stalls over the state.

"Next week shows a wetter pattern, thanks to a flow from the south," bringing in wetter air and a greater chance for rain, LeComte said.

"But I don't see enough rain to make much of a difference here, unless we get clocked by a few thunderstorms," he said. "So it's going to get worse before it gets better."

He blamed a northward shift in the jet stream, which has caused a predominantly northwest flow of air across the region.

"That's a pretty dry flow for us," LeComte said. Unlike the pattern during June's deluge, "we're not getting moisture from the Gulf [of Mexico] or the Atlantic. And showers do tend to weaken, if not dissipate, when they cross the Blue Ridge."

Water levels in wells and streams began the summer with a deficit thanks to very dry weather in March and May. The lack of rain since July 1 has just erased any gains from June's downpours.

"This is normally the driest period of the year anyway ... when we see ground water and streams at their lowest. ... However, things are a little bit below normal," said Dan Soeder, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Baltimore.

The bigger rivers - the Susquehanna, Potomac and Patapsco for example - are flowing at the low end of their normal range, he said.

But some smaller streams - including Cranberry Branch near Westminster, the East Branch of the Anacostia River near Washington and Dead Run near Franklintown in Baltimore County - are nearing record lows.

Officially, Central Maryland is experiencing only "abnormally dry" conditions, according to the weekly Drought Monitor report issued Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

But that report was based on an index of rain, temperature and soil moisture as measured last Tuesday. That could change with this week's report.

"I would not be surprised if parts of the region were to slip into drought on the Drought Monitor when it comes out on Thursday," LeComte said.

It's the second time in two years that the growing season in Maryland has ended with very dry weather. And it is beginning to hurt.

"We had been able to kind of eke along here for a while, but in the last several weeks, with the heat wave, it's really started taking its toll," said Bryan R. Butler, county extension director in Carroll County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. "If we have a similar year to last year, we're going to have some real problems."

Soybeans are the biggest concern, said Norman Bennett, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland Agricultural Statistics office, particularly the "double" crops - those planted in June or July after the wheat and barley harvests from the same fields.

Dry weather since then, and spotty showers, have stunted the beans' development. Some, on parts of the Eastern Shore, failed to germinate and never emerged from the dirt.

Soil moisture has been dropping for weeks. USDA data released yesterday showed 70 percent of the state's farm soils are now "short" or "very short" of moisture. Only 30 percent were rated "adequate."

But even so, corn was thought to have been well-established and formed before the worst of the dry weather struck. And vegetables have likely done well because they're irrigated, Bennett said.

But some locations have not fared that well.

In Carroll County, Butler said, the "field" corn that animals eat has been drying up. Some of it is quite short and has failed to produce a sizable ear. That's cutting potential yields and has forced farmers to accelerate their harvest for silage - the corn that's cut and chopped to provide feed for dairy cattle.

"It has to have a certain level of moisture, and it's started to dry down too fast," he said.

Hay crops have failed to regrow as healthy as the first cutting, reducing yields. Apples and pumpkins could be smaller.

Vegetable crops have fared better, thanks to widespread irrigation, Butler said. Dry weather actually helps keep disease at bay. But the extreme temperatures this month did cause some "scalding and burning," he said.

Carroll's backyard plots have also suffered. "A lot of vegetable gardens have just gone by the wayside," Butler reported.

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