- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

RICHMOND (AP) Above-average rainfall since October has boosted river levels and replenished wells, but specialists disagree on whether the state's 3-year-old drought is over.
Bill Hayden, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said a wet winter is needed to continue the recent groundwater gains. Until that happens, state officials will say the drought persists, he said.
"To be honest, it's difficult for people to recognize that when you see all this rainfall," Mr. Hayden said. "But when you are talking about drought, especially the serious one we have been through, we really have to look beyond puddles on the ground."
Anthony Siebers, the meteorologist in charge of the Wakefield Weather Forecast Office, was more optimistic.
"For all practical purposes, the drought is over," he said.
Stream flows around the state are all in the normal range, said hydrologist David Nelms with the U.S. Geological Survey in Richmond, and groundwater levels "have come up nicely," if not fully, in many areas of Virginia.
"Remember, it took it a while to go down," Mr. Nelms said. "It'll take it a while to come up. I don't think we can make any calls on whether we're in or out of a drought from a groundwater situation."
In the summer and fall, the drought damaged crops and livestock, dried up ponds and wells, lowered drinking-water reservoirs, and restricted commerce. Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, declared a drought emergency, putting in place statewide water-use restrictions. The state eased those restrictions in November.
At this time last year, Mr. Nelms said, well levels were declining around the state, but this year the frequent and widespread precipitation is pumping up groundwater levels.
"So, when it comes to talking about whether we're out of the drought," he said, "I'd say we're in a better situation than we were this time last year."
What is improving water levels is "the good and miserable weather," said Mr. Nelms' U.S. Geological Survey colleague, hydrologist Don Hayes. "It's allowing the water to recharge the groundwater system. How long it's going to take, we don't know."
"All we need now is normal rain over the next four to six months as we go into the summer to be totally recharged and be back to normal," he said.
In fact, if the rains continue, Mr. Siebers said, the well-soaked ground could produce minor flooding in central and southeastern Virginia. For instance, the Potomac River, Virginia's northern boundary, rose a bit above flood stage at Point of Rocks, Md., below Harper's Ferry, W.Va., on Friday, the Baltimore-Washington Weather Forecast Office said.
Meanwhile, a State Water Commission panel studying Virginia's water needs endorsed legislation Friday that Mr. Warner had proposed last month. The bill would require the state to work with local governments to create state, local and regional water-supply plans. The status of the drought wasn't an issue at Friday's committee meeting.
"Everyone there recognized that a little bit of rain didn't change our water-supply needs," said Kathy Frahm, the environmental department's director of legislative affairs. "This is a long-term kind of thing."

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