A hydrogeologist delivered news yesterday that only schoolchildren would want to hear: Carroll will need several snowy days this winter to get its water supply back to normal.
"The drought really isn't over. Don't sit back and relax," said county hydrogeologist Tom Devilbiss, addressing the monthly agribusiness meeting in Westminster. "From a ground water standpoint, levels are still lower than normal. We need nice, wet snows to get a recharge."
Two drenching hurricanes have at least temporarily replenished the county's water supplies. Dennis, the first of the storms, added close to 4 feet in 24 hours at one monitor well. But in most areas, ground water is far below normal.
In Taneytown, well levels in the city's largest supply had dropped nearly 150 feet before the first storm.
One of the worst droughts of the century lowered the county's water table, which Devilbiss described as an imaginary underground surface where every crack is filled with water. Only a snowy winter can restore it to normal levels, he said, calling for conservation throughout the county.
"We are still in one of the driest times of the year," said Devilbiss. "If Mother Nature shuts us off again, we could be back to where we started. The water table rises and falls according to precipitation."
The drought started a year ago, at the end of a dry summer. Fall and winter were drier still.
The county monitors 25 wells biweekly and can alert municipalities to any expected shortages.
In November, monitors recorded the lowest rise in the water table in nine years.
The situation worsened, as winter wore on without significant snowfall.
"We saw drops in ground water levels all across the county," said Devilbiss. "Everywhere the ground water suffered. By the end of May, we knew we were headed for problems. We got into the extreme drought category this year, the third-worst of the century."
Most towns and all of South Carroll were hit with summerlong water restrictions. Residents could not wash cars or sprinkle lawns, as the drought sapped supplies and contributed to failed wells.
Recent rains have eased the restrictions. Hampstead has a ban on automatic sprinklers, but the other towns have lifted all restrictions. Taneytown removed its ban Wednesday, although its well is far below average levels.
"Public consumption must remain moderate, and above-average rain and snow during the fall and winter will be necessary to fully recharge city wells," Taneytown officials said in a news release issued yesterday.
The county imposed a ban in South Carroll on June 1, when demand far outstripped the Freedom plant's ability to process water. The ban ended last week, and the county is exploring several options for increasing the water supply in its most populated area. One option is construction of a series of wells on the grounds of the state-owned Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.
Conservation countywide is vital to an adequate water supply, said Devilbiss.
"Luckily in September, which is normally dry, we saw a 2.5-foot jump in ground water," said Devilbiss. "That is a significant increase that we don't often see. But it could be a long, dry fall."