Parched state

The Baltimore Sun

Marylanders may see some welcome rain this weekend, but it's not expected to fully reverse what has become the driest start to a calendar year in 138 years of record-keeping in Baltimore.

After nearly two months with only a few inches of snow and scant rainfall across most of Maryland, more than half the state officially fell into a drought this week.

Dry weather that began in October has left streams flowing at record or near-record lows for this time of year, hydrologists say. Water tables are falling when they should be recharging, and farm fields and pastures are growing short of the moisture they'll need to support early growth after planting this spring.

"The thing that's got me worried is that this is kind of setting up a lot like the 2002 drought," said Daniel J. Soeder, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Baltimore. "We could be looking at a repeat, maybe of a bit lesser severity than we saw in 2002."

Meteorologists blame the dry weather on a persistent dome of high pressure that settled over the eastern U.S. for the winter. The high pressure kept us mostly dry, while diverting the winter storm track to our west and north, over the Great Lakes and into New England.

"They've gotten a good amount of snow throughout New York, New England and places like that," said Richard Hitchens, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Sterling, Va. Far Western Maryland also benefited from the storms.

This weekend's rain will help, as did the 0.36 inches that fell Thursday at BWI Marshall Airport. Baltimore could see as much as an inch more before it all ends Sunday - but that does not represent a shift in the larger pattern, Hitchens said. "Anything is better than nothing, but a couple hundredths of an inch, that's not going to fill your well up real high."

The long-range forecasts show more below-normal precipitation for April, he said, but no clear trend beyond that.

Maryland farmers remember the 2002 drought well. It cost them 20 to 80 percent of their crops and triggered federal drought disaster declarations in 21 of the state's 23 counties.

Municipal well systems in Western Maryland ran short or failed, and Baltimore's reservoirs fell to a record-low 41 percent of capacity. The city tapped the Susquehanna River to augment dwindling supplies.

Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening called for voluntary water conservation in 15 counties. But by April he was forced to declare a drought emergency, imposing mandatory watering curbs on all of Central Maryland outside the urban water service areas. Those curbs were tightened in August as conditions worsened.

The drought broke that fall, and by June 2003, after a winter-long recharge, streams were flowing again and the city's reservoirs were full.

Parts of the state were touched again by drought in 2006, and yet again from the summer of 2007 through the spring of 2008. Not surprisingly, the lack of rainfall this year is a worry to farmers.

"We're all talking about it," said Buddy Hance, a deputy secretary of agriculture who also raises corn, wheat and soybeans in Calvert County.

"Right now, we're OK, but as time goes along here, in another couple of weeks, as the days start getting longer and it draws the moisture down, farmers are going to start paying much closer attention," he said.

Winter wheat crops planted last fall have been slow to green up, he said. And farmers are looking for some added moisture to help them work the soil and to aid germination when corn planting begins in mid-April.

If the dry weather continues, they may wait to plant or switch to soybeans. The dry conditions may also encourage more farmers to move to no-till techniques that preserve soil moisture.

Dry weather in recent years, Hance said, "shows ... how important it is to conserve that residue and hold whatever moisture you have for more extended periods."

Baltimore has seen barely 4 inches of rain since Jan. 1. That's almost 6 inches below the average. The federal Drought Monitor Map released Thursday shows 52 percent of Maryland in "moderate drought." The affected area includes all of the urban corridor from Baltimore to Washington; most of Southern Maryland; portions of the Eastern Shore, and the west as far as Washington County.

The rest of the state is classified as "abnormally dry."

"Moderate drought" is described as conditions that cause "some damage" to crops and pastures. Streams and reservoirs or wells are "low," with "some water shortages developing or imminent." Voluntary water restrictions are "requested."

Baltimore's reservoir system remains at 91 percent of capacity - about normal for this time of year, according to Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works. "If you use water, use water now while there's a good supply," he said.

And if you are on well water? So far, groundwater supplies are "not so bad," Soeder said. But he said the downward trend is worrisome.

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