That gasping sound you hear may be your lawn, or your neighbor's snap beans, dying of thirst.
The Baltimore region hasn't had more than a spit of useful rain since May 17, and homeowners and farmers are beginning to get concerned.
Yesterday, 0.26 of an inch was measured at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and there was a good chance of late afternoon or evening thunderstorms today. That will help a little, as will highs in the mid-80s today, and the cooler weather predicted for tomorrow. But only a little.
"I think we're in pretty serious trouble right now," Russell Balge, extension agent in Baltimore County for urban agriculture, said yesterday. "A slow drizzle is what we really need. These scattered downpours in the last two or three weeks do little good because they mostly run off."
Suburban lawns are turning brown two months early; the strawberry crop has been cut in half; the season's second hay crop has stopped growing, and many farmers have stopped trying to plant soybeans until they get more rain.
"We're approaching 6 inches [of rain] below normal already," said G. Richard Curran, Baltimore County extension director. "If this continues, it's going to be pretty critical."
Barely 0.31 of an inch of rain had fallen at Baltimore-Washington International Airport so far this month. That comes atop a 2.28-inch rainfall deficit in May and a 1.67-inch shortfall in April.
For the year, the airport has fallen more than 5 inches short of the average rainfall. In Baltimore, the rain gauge was 6.42 inches behind the average through June 10.
However, the most critical portion of the drought has come since May 17, when the last significant rainfall brought almost a half-inch of rain to the airport.
Since then, the airport has measured just 0.33 inches of rain. Yesterday's downtown rain data was unavailable, but barely .04 inches had fallen there between May 18 and Monday, said Fred Davis, the National Weather Service's chief meteorologist at BWI.
"We should have had close to 3 inches at both locations" during that period, he said.
The problem, Davis said, is that "we're getting a westerly, or zonal flow [of winds and weather] across the country." By the time it arrives in Maryland, the air is wrung dry of moisture.
The westerly air flow, driven by unusual jet stream currents, also is blocking the normal flow of moisture to Maryland from the Gulf of Mexico, where rain has been heavy. New Orleans received 10 inches on Monday alone, and more fell yesterday, creating serious flooding.
The long-range forecast calls for weather warmer and drier than normal to continue through the summer. That will be bad news for Maryland farmers, who have had only two years with normal or above-normal rainfall since 1984.
"We're just really starting to get concerned," said Roberta L. Weber, agricultural science agent for Howard County.
"One of the first things we've seen is a real decrease in the strawberry harvest. Instead of picking for the entire month of June, they may be done in another few days." The season has been cut in half.
"I'm also really starting to get worried because the corn is starting to curl and show signs of dryness," Weber said. "If we get rain in the next week or so, it can still snap back, but I'm very worried. Even the subsoil moisture is diminishing. The other crop I'm concerned about is hay."
The first cutting has been harvested, but the second growth "is just standing still; there's nothing there for it," she said.
Curran said some early grain crops such as barley and wheat are not being hurt, but they're coming in early.
"A lot of farmers have been combining barley in May, and that's unheard of," he said.
For some late corn, however, "not an ounce of rain has fallen on it since it was planted," Curran said.
The lack of moisture also has prevented fertilizers and herbicides from activating, and farmers are reporting that their weeds are thriving.
"Soy beans are planted after May 15 . . . and some farmers have just stopped planting," Curran said. "The ground is so dry, that to put seed into the ground and let it just lie there does not make sense. . . . A lot of them are just waiting for rain to come."
Where irrigation is unavailable, vegetable crops such as snap beans are underdeveloped. But Baltimore County's peaches, pears and apples are doing well.
In suburbia, Weber said, the most obvious signs of drought are brown lawns. But homeowners may be wise to keep the sprinkler in the shed.
"People should be encouraged not to water," she said. The grass will turn brown and enter a "dormant" state without watering. But it will revive when the rains return.
"A fescue lawn can go two months without rain and still come back," Weber said. Most area lawns are fescue; those planted in bluegrass can't take the heat and are not likely to survive.
Unless you can put an inch of water on your grass, religiously, once or twice a week, watering may only encourage the grass to develop shallow, vulnerable roots, Weber said.
"Then, if you don't continue to water . . . that could kill it," Weber said.
And it's "almost impossible" to get that much water onto your lawn consistently. An inch of water over an acre yard consumes 25,000 gallons of water for one watering.
Even a quarter-acre yard would require more than 6,000 gallons once or twice a week. "If you're paying for water, that's expensive," she said.
Shallower watering will not only endanger your grass but it also will encourage the weeds.
On the other hand, it may pay to water your valuable shrubs and vegetable gardens.
"The rhododendrons are pretty thirsty, and if you see them wilting, try to get some water on those plants," Weber said. "Trees are usually OK, but for some shallow shrubs, keep an eye on them for signs of stress. Azaleas are very shallow-rooted."
For the shrubs, "water them once a week and water them deeply," she said. That means an inch of water, measured by placing cat food or tuna cans under the sprinkler to catch and measure the water. Once you know how long it takes to lay down an inch of water, you can simply time the sprinkling.
The following table shows rainfall, in inches, at BWI since April 1. June figures are through today.
Month .. .. Normal rain .. .. Actual rain .. ..Deficit
April ... . 3.35 .. .. ....1.68 .. .. .. . .1.67
May .. .. .3.44 .. .. .....1.16 .. .. ... ..2.28
June .. .. 1.38 .. .. .. .. 0.31 .. .. .. .. 1.07
Totals .. ..8.17 .. .. . .. 3.15 .. .. .. .. 5.02