By LAUREN C. WILLIAMS
WASHINGTON (March 29, 2009)—Maryland could be put on a drought watch if April doesn't bring lots of showers.
This year, Maryland is behind in precipitation, with deficits of a little more than .75 inches for the month of March—less than .50 inches in Hagerstown—and nearly 6 inches for the year to date, according to National Weather Service data from BWI-Marshall Airport.
If conditions continue, "we're likely to issue a (moderate drought) watch," said Deputy Secretary Robert Summers, of the Maryland Department of Environment's Drought Watch.
Maryland got just over a half-inch of rain Wednesday and Thursday and less than that is expected over the next week. That won't put much of a dent in the rain deficit.
Maryland has received half of its normal rainfall this year, said Dan Soeder, hydrologist for U.S. Geological Survey in Baltimore. That rainfall amount is considered abnormally dry, a step below a moderate drought when a drought watch would be issued. And if conditions persist, he said, a deeper drought could lie ahead.
"We were fairly normal through the winter up until January," said Soeder. A drought now, is "a bit of a concern ... The water that we get this time of year is what sees us through the summer."
Up near the Mason-Dixon Line, groundwater levels are more or less normal, Soeder said. But in southern Maryland, where they never recovered from the 2002 drought, levels are very low.
In 2002, it did not rain through the summer.
"It was a lot drier in 2002 than it is right now," Summers said.
Maryland's 2002 drought was preceded by a drought in 1999 and average or below-average rainfall in 2000 and 2001, said Summers. The state was in need of more than 18 inches of rain at BWI by the end of August of 2002, according to the Maryland State Climatology Office.
That drought was moderately severe, said Soeder, and was not quenched until a hurricane in October brought in almost 3 inches of rain, as reported by the National Weather Service.
"The timing was bad. It started in the winter and went through the spring," similar to conditions now, said Soeder.
"In 2002, the drought was so severe that water restrictions were in place for most of the year," according to the National Climatic Data Center.
It was dubbed a drought 'like we've never seen' in an article from The Baltimore Sun at the time. Marylanders were banned from washing their cars or watering their lawns with sprinklers and they had to boil water to ensure drinkability in many areas. Farmers watched their crops turn to dust.
"We had to stop irrigating the playing fields," said John Terrell, deputy director of Recreation Parks and Tourism in Wicomico County. He recalled the "bald spots" from where players would stand on the field and the lack of "lush" turf.
It was so dry fires erupted in tinder-like woodlands, The Sun said.
In some communities, the climatic center said, water was hauled in to meet water supply needs, as many reservoirs reached very low levels.
There are three types of droughts: meteorological, when there is a rainfall deficit; hydrological, when groundwater and stream flow levels are only 10 percent of normal; and agricultural, when a lack of water supply affects vegetation growth.
In 2002 the state experienced all three. So far, Maryland is in meteorological and hydrological droughts, but could see an agricultural drought with a few more dry weeks, said Soder.
In winter and early spring, when vegetation is dormant, groundwater supplies tend to "recharge" and most of the water precipitated soaks into the ground, said Soeder.
Low groundwater levels, which peaked in February and continued to drop, have translated into low stream levels and dry soil, which can impede gardening and farming.
"We're looking at relatively low stream flow conditions and groundwater," said Soeder. "The streams are dropping when they should be rising."
But it's not time to start boiling water just yet.
"It's way too early to push the panic button on this," Soeder said. "But it's certainly something we want to keep an eye on."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.