- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

Hot, dry weather is just around the corner even though rain and snow over the past three months have improved the water outlook over last year, weather experts say.

"People are going to have to plan to do some watering," said Jim Travers, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., office.

With precipitation now 1 to 3 inches above normal for most of the region, man-made and natural reservoirs are almost fully recharged.

That means gardeners and lawn-tenders are not likely to be thwarted by voluntary and mandatory watering restrictions imposed last summer, when precipitation was more than a foot below normal in most of the area.

"As of right now, we are less vulnerable than we were last year to drought," said Ward Staubitz, district chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Virginia office.

However, trees are "leafing out," and within a few days vegetation will be soaking up rain before it can reach underground aquifers.

Add summer forecasts for hotter-than-usual temperatures and only "near normal" precipitation and conditions could change by July, when increased risks of fires from dried brush and grass are likely to return.

Stream flow is well above normal throughout almost all of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, according to Mr. Staubitz and Gary Fisher of the USGS office for Maryland, Delaware and the District.

Groundwater levels which are more reliable indicators of water resources in both wells and streams are at normal levels for most of the region.

But not everywhere.

Well-water levels remain below normal in the central Maryland counties of Howard and Harford and the western counties of Allegany and Garrett, as well as southwestern Virginia west of Interstate 81 from Blacksburg.

Recent rains could help avert another multimillion-dollar pinch such as that farmers there are still feeling from the loss of crops, feed and hay last year.

Yet it's important to note that a dry summer and fall in 1998 followed by below-normal rainfall in 1999 set the scene for a prolonged midsummer drought in the Middle Atlantic states.

If that scenario were to repeat, the region could face another drought in summer 2001, said Mr. Fisher.

"We've never seen a drought last just one year," Mr. Fisher said.

Consumers and the environment in the Washington metropolitan area were cushioned from the full effects of last year's drought by reservoirs built in the 1980s.

But 1999 which marked water utilities' first withdrawals from those reserves likely marked the beginning of continued taps for residents of the rapidly growing area, said Curtis Dalpra, spokesman for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

The ICPRB, which coordinates use of the Potomac by the three major water utilities in the region, is researching long-term demands on the river and its reservoirs.

Computer simulations the commission ran last year indicated the system could continue to meet the population's needs even under the worst drought conditions ever recorded in the region.

"If we look out long term, future demand has an impact, but [the need for stored water] is not growing to the point where there's a significant change in the equation," Mr. Dalpra said.

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