By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Recent rainfall in Maryland has made fields wet enough for farmers to plant this spring, but whether there will be enough water for anything to grow this summer remains to be seen, officials said Wednesday.
“We’re still in a drought,” said Tony Evans, an emergency services officer at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “It’s like a bank account. We’ve been withdrawing and withdrawing. So now we have to make some deposits.”
The 3.5 inches of rain that fell over most of the state in March — the Eastern Shore got 4.5 inches — was just around average. It was a big leap from the month before, when the U.S. Geological Survey said just 0.36 inches fell, the driest February on record in Maryland.
February wrapped up one of the driest winters on record. Richard Tinker, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said there was a one in 100 chance that last September through February would be so dry.
“The numbers were unusual. It was dry to a ridiculous extreme,” he said.
March’s rains give farmers hope, but not much more, Evans added.
“Agriculturally speaking, if we have months like March, we can get our crops in, and get them up and growing,” he said. “But the forecast so far does not hold out promise of normal or above-normal rainfall for the next 90 days or so. That’s a little scary.”
Across the state, farmers are out in the fields taking advantage of the March rains. The Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service reported that there were 4.4 days suitable for fieldwork last week. The report said small amounts of potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, snap beans and sweet corn are already in the ground and peaches, apples and strawberries have already started blooming.
“We benefited a good deal from rains that fell in March,” said Deputy State Statistician Dave Knopf. “The seeds that have been planted and will be planted over the next few weeks will have moisture to germinate.”
Knopf said the immediate outlook is not as favorable for livestock that depend on groundwater for survival.
Groundwater levels tell the real story of a drought, said USGS hydrologist Wendy McPherson.
“Groundwater shows the long-term effects of a drought,” McPherson said. “We’ve got the puddles. We’ve got the grasses growing. But all of that is quite deceptive.”
Eight of the 17 wells monitored by the USGS were below average for March. McPherson said the state faces problems because there is no snowmelt this year to recharge the groundwater.
This puts farmers and much of the state in an “extremely vulnerable position,” Tinker said. Farmers need a consistent supply of rain to make their crops grow, but it’s just too early to tell if that’s going to happen, he said.
“Short-term conditions like fire danger and a lack of moisture in the topsoil have been alleviated,” Tinker said. “But we’re a long way from having this drought over.”
Aides said Gov. Parris Glendening, who was scheduled to declare a drought emergency for Central Maryland before rains came two weeks ago, will make a drought announcement later this week.
“We have received some rain, but it was not enough to provide a dramatic change,” from two weeks ago, said Susan Woods, a governor’s office spokeswoman.