By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Maryland farmers are hoping the worst winter drought in 70 years won’t lead to a bone-dry summer reminiscent of the drought of the 1960s, but record-breaking low water levels could push Maryland into a state of emergency.
“If we don’t start getting moisture in the ground real soon, there’s going to be a serious crop failure during the summer,” said Hank Passi, a Cecil County farmer who chairs the Maryland Agriculture Commission.
But forecasters say the outlook is not good.
U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Wendy McPherson said the state needs 15 to 27 inches of rain over the next three months to prevent it from plunging into the drought-like conditions experienced in the 1960s.
But while rain is expected over the next week to 10 days, it is likely to be far short of the amount needed. The rainfall predicted for this weekend was downgraded Thursday from an expected half-inch to less than a quarter-inch.
“We’re going to have much lighter rainfall than we had expected,” said Douglas LeComte, a drought specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “That’s not good news.”
The region has experienced unusually warm temperatures over the past six months and record-low rainfall. Potomac River flow in February fell 25 percent below 1934 record average-low of 2.1 billion gallons a day. By the end of last month, there was no doubting the state was experiencing a drought.
“This is the worst drought at this time of year that any of us has seen in Maryland,” said Tony Evans, an emergency services officer at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Evans said farmers were already severely low on hay and other cattle feed.
“The pastures are severely stressed,” he said. “We’re going to need a real miracle to bring them back.”
That miracle was lacking last month, the driest February on record for Maryland and Delaware, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Only 0.36 inches of rain fell in the month. The inch of rain that fell was not enough to make up the shortfall.
Evans, staring at his orchard Wednesday, said there were no signs that any rain had fallen.
Paul Crowl, a Harford County dairy farmer, said many farmers may have to look to hauling water from new sources if the trend continues.
Some counties already have fire trucks on standby to take water to farmers, said Lester Vough, a University of Maryland forage specialist.
“In previous years when we’ve had a major drought, dry weather has occurred later in the year,” Vough said.
With only two weeks before spring, when many farmers plant crops, very little growth is likely to take place, he said.
The drought could lead to higher prices at produce stands, or it could force cattle farmers to kill off livestock, said Don Vandrey, a state Department of Agriculture spokesman. “It’s a critical time,” he said.
It could also lead to mandatory restrictions on water for lawn care, car washes and other non-essential uses, said Saeid Kasraei, water supply administrator at the Maryland Department of Environment. The entire state is either under a drought watch or warning, and a state of emergency could be imminent, he said.
Conditions are most serious along the Eastern Shore and in Central Maryland, said Kasraei, who hoped for a good weekend of “nice and steady” rainfall.
LeComte said the heaviest rain over the next 10 days will likely fall to the north and west of Maryland, but the state will still benefit from the system.
Farmers like Passi, meanwhile, were taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“We need rain to turn things around,” he said. “But we don’t just need rain. We need lots of it.”