- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

Benoni Allnutt isn't easily impressed by dry spells. After all, he is 84 and was working the family farm back in the Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s."You could see the dust storms from the Midwest. My gosh, corn didn't grow. Nothing grew much," said Mr. Allnutt, whose father bought the 270-acre farm near Poolesville in 1886. "We had a little creek. You could walk across it. It was nothing but stagnant pools."
Tough as that time was, the Allnutts did something last month that they never have done before so early in the year: On Feb. 24, they went out to plow fields.
"That is unheard of at this time of year," said Ben Allnutt, who now farms the place for his father. Plowing normally would be too difficult this early in the season, when tractors get stuck in the thick mud. That's not a problem right now, he said.
"There are no wet spots. You can drive your tractor right over them," said Ben Allnutt, 49. "The big thing is, there is no groundwater."
For weeks there have been murmurings about a severe drought in Maryland, Virginia and the District one that could be, in the words of one climatologist, "of historic proportions."
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening said last week he will declare water-use restrictions in central Maryland in the coming days and warned of more widespread restrictions.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner directed state agencies to develop and implement water conservation plans as soon as possible, after he received a report from the Virginia Drought Monitoring Task Force.
"Drought conditions in virtually all parts of Virginia now range from severe to extreme," Mr. Warner said, urging residents to reduce use of water for noncritical purposes.
And the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Drought Coordination Committee announced Feb. 20 a drought watch was in effect because of the "unusual and extended period of dry weather experienced since last September."
"Precipitation in the Washington region is more than 50 percent below normal since last September and river flows are near to or at record low levels for this time of year," wrote the committee, which COG formed in June 2000, one year after Mr. Glendening pronounced the first drought emergency in Maryland history.
The drought is already bad in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where many farm ponds are dry, according to a state climatologist, but Virginia's most severe drought conditions are west of U.S. 29 and in Northern Virginia.
"We have the specter of a drought of historical proportions showing up this summer," said Patrick J. Michaels, head of the Virginia State Climatology Office based at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Way off the mark
Approximately 36 inches of precipitation normally falls each year in the states around the Potomac River.
Joseph Hoffman, executive director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, said about 12 inches of that rain soaks deep and becomes the groundwater that is tapped by wells and tree roots.
About 12 inches runs off into rivers, streams and reservoirs. The other 12 inches accumulates and evaporates on the ground surface, causing grass, shrubbery and leaves to turn green.
Since Sept. 1, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport the official collection point for the capital region has recorded just 7.35 inches, about a third of normal.
Because of the lack of precipitation, the groundwater level is falling and the flow of the Potomac River the region's main source of water is declining.
The groundwater is "nature's storage system," Mr. Hoffman said. "That's where we're hurting, because we haven't had soaking rains and snow accumulations up in the mountains."
To meet normal needs, the area should receive an average of 1 inch of rain per week, Mr. Hoffman said, but "that does not recharge the groundwater."
"Anything above 1 inches average per week goes to make up the deficit," he said.
At this time of year, about 12,000 cubic feet of water should be flowing every second past Point of Rocks. A few weeks ago the flow was 1,600 cubic feet per second, but after a few days of rain last week, flow had increased to 2,210 cubic feet per second still far less than it should be.
"We are still below normal and are still setting low flow records," Mr. Hoffman said, adding that 3,000 cubic feet per second had been the previous record low since flow measurement at Point of Rocks began in 1895.
As winter passed with little rain and snowfall, the Maryland Department of the Environment watched more closely to determine how much water gathered and if rivers and stream levels rose or fell.
"Ordinarily, we monitored it monthly. Now we are monitoring it weekly," said department spokesman John Verrico. "We are getting about 10 inches less than average for rainfall."
Most Maryland rivers and streams are carrying only 15 percent to 30 percent of the water that usually flows this time of year, Mr. Verrico said.

Some encouraging rainfall
The drenching rain that has fallen since the first of the month has fueled hope that things might turn around by the summer.
"The situation at this point is very recoverable," said Rich Tinker, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center.
March, April and May are typically the rainiest months of the year, he said, and early March has been encouraging: Between March 1 and March 12, 1.38 inches of rainfall was recorded at Ronald Reagan National Airport.
While levels are down in rivers and streams, residents of towns and cities drawing water from the Potomac River in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania haven't been seriously affected by the winter drought yet.
The reservoirs serving communities that rely on the Potomac River are full. Jennings Randolph, near West Virginia, contains 13 billion gallons; Occoquan, on the southern border of Fairfax County, 8.5 billion; Little Seneca, north of Germantown, 4 billion; Tridelphia, on the Patuxent River near Columbia, Md., 7 billion; and Duckett, on the Patuxent River near Laurel, 6.4 billion.
"We continue to say the metropolitan areas are in pretty good shape because of the controls, like reservoirs," Mr. Hoffman said.
In Fairfax City, both Goose Creek and Beaverdam Creek reservoirs "are filled to capacity," officials said.
Yet farmers and residents outside metropolitan areas who depend on well water should be especially conservative because of the low groundwater levels, Mr. Hoffman said.
"It's not a serious concern yet. This time of year, we could get rain," Mr. Hoffman said, maybe even enough rain to restore normal levels.
The rains of the past two weeks were good because they were slow and were absorbed by the ground rather than running off, Mr. Hoffman said. Now the ground is ready for some thunderstorms, or at least heavy rainfalls that will more readily soak into the ground.
"It came down soft and low, which was good," Mr. Hoffman said.

Much more is needed
Still, a few days of sprinkles aren't enough.
"It's nothing to eliminate the drought conditions that we have. We need several weeks of this. Drought conditions are with us until we get that sustained rainfall," he said.
"It was welcome," Mr. Allnutt said. "I can't say we didn't enjoy it. Every bit of it went into the ground, and that's what we need."
The little rain that fell on their farm soaked the fertilizer into the ground, Ben Allnutt said, "but we need more."
David Hamilton said while he was growing up on a 94-acre farm near Waldorf, Md., his family seemed to have to cope with droughts every other year.
"The rain seemed like it always went around us," said Mr. Hamilton, 63, who in the past 20 years has also worked in electronics and for the government.
His family grew crops and raised livestock, and since the droughts of the 1960s he has operated a turf farm. It typically requires extra water, usually irrigated, and for that he relies on a small pond.
There were "ups and downs," he said. "Everything dried up and pretty well died out" from the 1991 drought.
He and his family depend on a well for the water they use. It's a deep well 400 feet and it's serving them fine, he said, but many shallower wells in the farming community have failed in recent years.
Chuck Fry, a dairy farmer in Frederick, Md., said his well has gone dry in the past few weeks, and he was worried about his "150 cows that need water really bad."
Mr. Fry was among the Loudoun County, Va., and Frederick residents who gathered at a recent meeting to object to a proposed energy plant near the Monocacy River's entry into the Potomac near Point of Rocks.
Like others, he wondered how Duke Energy could withdraw up to 7.9 million gallons of water per day to produce electricity without harming surrounding farmers and residents.

Early casualties
While people wait to see what will become of their crops or their carefully cultivated yards, the drought has already taken a toll on an unlikely population: fish.
Fish hatcheries usually release hungry, maturing fish into rivers and streams running full or overflowing from snow melt and spring rains.
But low water levels are usually clear, and they don't carry much food from the banks. They also make it easier for predators to spot the fish. Growing fish kept in breeding tanks risk suffocating, as the feed they need depletes oxygen from the water.
"We are extremely concerned with what water we have," said Phil Gay, a fly fisherman who operates Trout and About shop in Arlington. "We have none."
Usually at this time of year, the Potomac is about 4 feet deep, but in late February it was only about 2 feet deep, said Mr. Gay, who often fishes in Maryland's streams.
"We are definitely in the middle of a drought," said James A. Caldwell, director of environmental protection for Montgomery County.
The drought effects are almost unnoticed because people don't use as much water in the winter, and the metropolitan water supplies have been sustained. But roughly 80,000 county residents get their water from wells, and farmers are extremely concerned now, Mr. Caldwell said.
"If we don't see some significant rainfall in the immediate future, it's going to be a very dismal summer," Mr. Caldwell said.

Return of restrictions
The 1999 drought turned out to be the third worst since officials began keeping weather records in 1895.
In July 1999, Mr. Glendening declared Maryland's first drought emergency ever. The governor imposed mandatory water rationing for all residents, who faced fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail for watering a lawn or washing a car at home.
Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III did not declare water-use restrictions, instead leaving it up to local governments to direct water conservation efforts. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams asked residents to use water wise, but didn't limit use.
Regional leaders were criticized for the bickering over water restrictions in 1999, but Maryland, Virginia and the District decide separately whether any limits will be imposed this year.
The Maryland Drought Emergency Coordinating Committee has met regularly to assess the weather and prepare to adjust to possible droughts.
The Virginia Drought Monitoring Task Force will evaluate whether conditions this year will match the record-setting drought of 1930. The task force reported that September through February were the driest six months since Virginia began keeping weather records.
"We are in a drought. It's a slow-motion disaster," said Kevin Hall, deputy press secretary to Mr. Warner, referring to the forest fires that burned more than 2,600 acres in western Virginia last month.
The mid-Atlantic states are only a part of a drought that stretches from Maine to Georgia, according to NOAA's U.S. Drought Monitor.
In the last week of February, drought emergencies were announced for 24 counties in southern and eastern Pennsylvania. Drought warnings were issued for counties in southeastern New York and western New Jersey.
"Droughts go in cycles," said Mr. Allnutt, who wasn't overly impressed with the drought in 1999. "In the '60s we had some, but they weren't severe. The one in the 1930s was much worse."



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