ANNAPOLIS It may be a wet winter but don’t let that fool you; Maryland has not lifted its statewide advisory to take shorter showers and conserve water in general. And it’s too soon to tell whether the state’s farms will continue to suffer.
A wet January has helped replenish Maryland’s water supply after an extremely dry fall, when the state received only about 1.5 inches of rain. January’s rain has not prompted the Maryland Department of the Environment to lift the drought warning for the state, officials said.
The average normal amount of precipitation in Maryland from September to December is about 3.3 inches, according to Army Corps of Engineers data.
Water levels in every county remain below normal, said Saeid Kasraei, program manager for water supply at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“So far, we really don’t see any serious impact from the drought. But we must be cautious,” Kasraei said. “If there are more months like January, the water level should rebound back to normal.”
Maryland’s average normal precipitation for January is about 3.4 inches. The state received an average of about 5.6 inches of rain this January compared to about 6 inches for the month last year, according to National Weather Service data.
“That’s generally what we need” to make up the water deficit, said Michael Smigaj, a hydrological technician with the water resources division of the U.S. Geological Survey. “In the long term, we’re really not that low.”
Drought conditions are nothing new in Maryland. The state suffered worse droughts in 1993 and 1995, according to Jim Voss, state executive director for the U.S. Farm Service Agency.
“We’ve had drought conditions in various areas of the state about every other year,” said Harold Kanarek, public information officer for Maryland’s Department of Agriculture. “The concern is what kind of water table we’ll have going into the planting season.”
More counties were affected by lack of rain during the summer of 1997 than 1998, Kanarek said, but a wet winter and spring last year helped save farmers’ harvests.
“In 1997 and 1998 we were very fortunate with a great water table going into the planting season. In 1999, we have a lot of catching up to do,” he said.
That’s what farmers are hoping will happen again this year.
“I’ve seen times when weather turns around and we have a normal crop,” said Bill Knill, a produce and small grain farmer in Carroll County. “With March and April normally being the wettest months, we still have that ahead of us.”
Last year’s drought was particularly unusual because not enough rain fell in the fall to break the summer’s dry cycle, Knill said.
Other farmers agreed.
“I hope we won’t see the situation we saw this past year with the dry spell. But that was a very rare occasion,” said Mike Phipps, a tobacco and cattle farmer in Calvert County. “This year is a whole new year so we start from scratch.”
Phipps said his father, also a cattle farmer, has never seen his pasture so dry since he began farming in the early 1950s. But he said the recent precipitation will help pastures and winter wheat this spring.
Other farmers seem very concerned.
“It’s extremely dry going into the next planting season. There’s nowhere near enough rain,” said Dan Shortall, a poultry and grain farmer in Queen Anne’s County. He said the water level in a pond on his property is down 12 to 15 inches from the normal level for this time of year.
In 1998, his corn crop was about half of what it should have been and his soy bean crop faired even worse.
“Farmers will plant hoping for rain,” he said. “But there’s not adequate water in the ground to carry us through.”
Farmers suffered about $40 million in crop damage and loss last year, Kanarek said.
Although he agreed that a lack of rain in the fall can have a tremendous impact on the planting and harvest season, Kanarek said farmers tend to be philosophical about Mother Nature.
“Farmers depend on the weather,” he said, “however they’ve seen it all and get less excited about weather than the general public does.”