- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2002

An already serious drought in the Metropolitan area will get worse this summer, unless there is a lot of rain or snow in the next few weeks, hydrologists say.
Much of the East Coast is experiencing drought conditions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. The drought center rates much of the Metro area as experiencing "moderate" to "severe" drought conditions.
Stream-flow and groundwater levels across the region have reached record lows because of several months of below-average rainfall. Last week, the city of Baltimore tapped the Susquehanna River after its reservoirs dropped to 61 percent of capacity.
The Potomac River, which supplies water to most of the Metropolitan area, is flowing 84 percent below normal. However, there is plenty of water to supply the Metro area, said Joseph Hoffman, executive director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. About 350 million gallons of water are taken from the Potomac each day, while it is flowing at a rate of 1.8 billion gallons per day, and its reservoirs are full.
Still, experts say, the region is in desperate need of precipitation, and the sooner the better.
"By June or July we need to see some significant rainfall," Mr. Hoffman said. About an inch of precipitation per week is needed through the summer, he said.
The average local rainfall is a little less than an inch a week.
"Things don't look good," said Jim Manning, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "We need a lot of rain."
From now until the end of March is an important window of opportunity. It is a period when groundwater levels are replenished, which strengthens the stream-flow levels, recharging water levels for the onslaught of heavy summer use.
Groundwater is water that wasn't lapped up by thirsty plants and was not trapped in the top layers of soil. Groundwater levels most directly affect those who rely on well water.
This winter there has been little, if any, replenishment. From August 2001 to January 2002, precipitation was about 65 percent below normal at Washington Dulles and Baltimore-Washington international airports and 44 percent below average at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
"We're setting records for low groundwater levels," said Wendy McPherson, also a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist. She said that water levels have been declining for many months, possibly even years.
"We may not have recovered from the drought of [1999]," she said.
Heading into the drought of 1999, Maryland reservoirs were 91 percent full. Now they are 59 percent full, Mr. Manning said.
A drought warning was issued a week ago by the National Weather Service for northern Montgomery County, Frederick and Carroll counties, northern Baltimore, and western Howard and Harford counties.
The region is in its third year of establishing record lows for groundwater, said David Nelms, a groundwater specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He said the declining water levels point to a building problem.
"We're due for a long-term drought. There's something going on we know that from the data," Mr. Nelms said.
"How long and how severe? We can't predict that. That's why the best thing to do is just be wise with water use. Don't waste water."
The last long-term drought in the region took place in the late 1960s. Mr. Nelms said droughts of that magnitude happen every 30 years or so.

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