April drought threatens 'May flowers'

Red Flag Fire warning signs are posted at Greenbelt Park camping grounds bulletin boards as drought conditions are developing across the state.
Red Flag Fire warning signs are posted at Greenbelt Park camping grounds bulletin boards as drought conditions are developing across the state. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

A developing drought across the eastern half of Maryland could worsen without a few periods of soaking rain, and drizzle like that seen Wednesday won't be enough to cut the rainfall deficit.

At Carter and Draper Farms on the Eastern Shore, John Draper is used to dealing with a summer drought once every few years. But rarely has he been in his current predicament: There has been so little spring rain, he fears if he plants 225 acres of corn as planned, it quickly will die.

A few inches into the sandy soil, there is moisture. While it's probably enough to get corn seeds to germinate and sprout up, it may not be sufficient to sustain the young crops for long.

"It's as dry as I've ever seen it this time of year," said Draper, who runs the 600-acre farm near Wye Mills. "Drought is hitting so much earlier than I've ever seen it. It's a little scary."

The Maryland Department of the Environment declared a drought watch for the Eastern Shore on Friday, urging residents to be conscious of water use but not yet placing any restrictions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of the Eastern Shore is under "severe" drought conditions, while Baltimore city and Harford, Anne Arundel and eastern Baltimore counties are in a "moderate" drought.

While drought conditions are relatively common in the hot summer months, it is the earliest drought watch since spring 2008, according to the MDE. Before that, much of the state was under an "emergency" drought declaration in spring 2002.

The dry weather has its pluses and minuses. Landscapers are struggling to cultivate green lawns and the heightened risk of wildfires threatens forests. Fortunately, it also means grown plants are less likely to be stricken with disease, and less runoff means fewer fish-killing algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay.

The region had seen just more than half of the average year-to-date rainfall as of April 17, five inches short of the normal 12 inches. The 6.78 inches of rain so far this year would rank as the third-lowest rainfall on record if it stood at the end of the month. A drizzly system moving through the area Wednesday wasn't expected to add more than a tenth of an inch, but solid chances for heavier rain Saturday and Sunday could help.

A lack of snow this winter also got the spring growing season off more slowly than normal. Snow melt saturates soil gradually, but the 1.8 inches of snow measured at BWI Marshall Airport this winter was the third-smallest seasonal snowfall on record.

The mild winter and warm start to spring has some farmers eager to take advantage and plant early, but the dry soil is setting them back. William Layton started planting corn at Lazy Day Farm in Dorchester County last week, with soil temperatures already reaching the desired 55 degrees. He is lucky, he said, because his farm's soil contains more clay and takes longer to dry out.

But wheat he is preparing to harvest in June could be stunted by the lack of rain, he said. At this point in the growing cycle, the wheat needs moisture to develop heads of grain. Wheat typically doesn't require irrigation, but that may change this year, Layton said.

Draper, meanwhile, is holding off on readying his fields for corn because of the risk of the crop dying off. He said he might instead plant soybeans a little later this spring; they are easier to maintain than corn, but less profitable.

It's too early to predict economic losses from the drought, said Earl Hance, Maryland's agriculture secretary. But the risk of losses is a concern, he said. If crop yields fall a third below established levels for each county, Gov. Martin O'Malley can ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a drought declaration that makes farmers eligible for low-interest loans, he said.

Yields will be helped by the fact that low moisture means lower disease risk for crops, but it is little consolation, he said.

"There are generally not enough benefits to outweigh the losses," Hance said.

Backyard gardens are suffering equally. Grass seed that has been scattered hasn't had enough rain to sink into the soil and take root, meaning it needs to be watered, if possible, said Jay Simonds, owner of Simonds Nursery in Reisterstown. In a normal year, grass, trees, shrubs and flowers planted in April and May wouldn't need to be watered until June or July, he said.

Akehurst Landscaping in Joppa typically sends customers letters advising them to water plants in July, but owner Bill Akehurst said the company is sending those letters out this week, instead.

"This is 'April showers bring May flowers' and we haven't seen it," Akehurst said. "If there's no April showers, May flowers are going to suffer."

Vegetation isn't just at risk of withering from thirst, but by fire, too. "Red flag" warnings and fire risk advisories from the National Weather Service have persisted in March and April because high winds, low humidity and dried-out brush and branches combine to heighten the risk of wildfire spread.

Pine needles and dead branches are always at risk of catching fire if it hasn't rained recently, but living branches and twigs have become less fire-resistant than normal and need about 10 hours of rain to regain moisture, said Steve Goldstein, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

At Greenbelt Park, run by the National Park Service in Prince George's County, the only fires permitted are those inside barbecue grills. A handful of brush fires have broken out at neighboring parks, although they haven't spread far, said Stephen Syphax, chief of resource management for National Capital Parks-East, which includes Greenbelt Park. But it has been rare to see drought-related fire risks in the spring, he said — usually high summer humidity helps keep fires in check.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is discouraging any open burning until after rainfall of at least an inch.

Rainfall expected Saturday and Sunday could be a step toward reversing the drought conditions. The National Weather Service is forecasting showers Saturday and steady moderate to heavy rain Sunday, meteorologist Carries Suffern said.

"This can all change with a 4- to 6-inch rainfall to get us back where we need to be," Akehurst said.



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