Drought is washed away

Rains fill reservoirs, put end to concerns

May 14, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

The creeks are full, the fields are soggy, and the drought that had Maryland farmers and water managers so worried late last year is finally behind us.

"Certainly in Maryland, there's no drought left," said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs. "It's hard to get 8 inches of rain and still have drought."

Improved rainfall in recent months has nearly filled Baltimore's three reservoirs. Farmers in Southern Maryland, where the dry conditions lingered longest, are happy. Or they will be, as soon as they can get back into their muddy fields for planting.

"Right now, we're in pretty good shape," said Buddy Hance, a Calvert County farmer and state deputy secretary of agriculture. "It's OK."

It's a far cry from October, when five months of dry weather had left most of the state with a deep and growing rainfall deficit. Streams and water tables had fallen all summer, and crops had wilted. More than 87 percent of the state was rated in at least moderate drought by Oct. 23, with two-thirds experiencing severe drought.

Gov. Martin O'Malley applied for and won a federal drought disaster declaration for Maryland. He also issued a drought watch for 15 counties in Eastern and Central Maryland, where residents were urged to conserve water wherever they could.

In December, public works officials in Baltimore reported that the city's three reservoirs had dropped to 64 percent of capacity. That was not an immediate worry, but it would have been if the dry weather had persisted into 2008, as some forecasts had suggested it would.

Susquehanna pipeline

The city decided to conserve what was still on hand and turned to the Susquehanna River to supplement water supplies for its 1.8 million water consumers.

But precipitation over the winter began to recharge the reservoirs, soils and water tables. By last week, only 22 percent of the state - mostly on the Lower Eastern Shore - remained in drought.

By the first week in March, the city's reservoirs had recovered to nearly 82 percent of capacity, so the pipeline from the Susquehanna was shut down. And heavy rains since Friday have slashed the long-term deficit at BWI Marshall Airport to less than 4 inches. Since Jan. 1 at BWI, the region has a 3.5-inch surplus.

Yesterday, Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said Loch Raven Reservoir was full for the first time since June. Prettyboy Reservoir was 97 percent full, and Liberty was at 95 percent.

"We're in excellent shape right now," Kocher said. "A lot of water is still pouring in there. I'm curious to see if we are going to reach 100 percent on all of them. This is the time to fill your pool, if you're lucky enough to have one."

The heavy rains since late last week have been a mixed blessing.

Record rainfall

More than 6 inches fell at BWI from Thursday to Monday night. The deluges set daily rainfall records Friday, Sunday and Monday, and pushed the May total to 6.17 inches, 4.73 inches more than the average for BWI through May 12.

Even more rain - more than 7 inches in some parts of Calvert County - fell across Southern Maryland. For some, it was too much of a good thing, causing street flooding, stranded cars, wet basements and leaky roofs. For farmers, Hance said, any kind of weather brings its problems.

"It's definitely too wet to get into the fields to do anything," he said. "But Southern Maryland has been dry as long or longer than anybody else in Maryland. Farmers were very concerned about going into another growing season with a deficit in soil moisture. This recent rain will help to recharge the water tables, build up soil moisture and help you feel a little better."

The corn crop has been planted in Southern Maryland, he said. Soybean planting has begun, but further work might have to wait until the fields dry.

Hay fields are still too wet for cutting. Some winter wheat and barley fields sustained significant "lodging" during the storms, Hance said, referring to rain and wind that knock the plants down. "Some of that will recover; some of it won't."

On vegetable farms, strawberries could suffer from fungal diseases and insect attack if they stay too wet. And delayed planting could make it more difficult for growers to time their harvests to provide a steady supply to roadside stands through the summer.

But "those issues can get worked out," Hance said. "At this point, it's not a major long-term impact unless we continue in a wet spell for an extended period."

More rain is forecast for tomorrow and Friday.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Maryland Rainfall

Month Rainfall (in.) Difference from monthly average

May '08 6.17 +4.73

April '08 4.62 +1.62

March '08 2.37 -1.56

Feb. '08 3.80 +0.78

Jan. '08 1.47 -2.00

Dec. '07 4.03 +.0.68

Nov. '07 1.52 -1.60

Oct. '07 5.85 +2.69

Sept. '07 0.35 -3.63

Aug. '07 3.08 -0.66

July '07 3.31 -0.54

June '07 2.20 -1.23

May '07 0.94 -2.95

April '07 5.00 +1.53

Source: National Weather Service

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