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Rain doesn't quell mid-Atlantic drought

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | March 15, 2002

March's rainfall has done little to quell what has become a severe hydrological drought in the mid-Atlantic, said Harry Lins, drought science coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Since March 1, rain has fallen across much of the eastern U.S. in near-normal amounts.

But federal officials announced that the drought stretching from Maine to Georgia would not be quelled even if normal spring rains continue.

When rain falls, public concerns about drought recede. But in fact, there is "no short-term relief" likely, said Lins.

As of Friday, 75% of 260 stream gauges in the mid-Atlantic showed below-normal stream flow conditions. Usually somewhere around 25% are below normal, said Lins, so "this is significantly more than we'd expect" showing low stream flow.

Another measure drought officials consider is how many stream gauges show record new lows. On Friday, 31% of real-time stream gauges in the mid-Atlantic were showing record new low flows. As a comparison, on Tuesday, 42% of gauges were reporting record lows, and on Wednesday 40% did.

The current dry spell began in mid-February, and since then nearly every day about one-third of the mid-Atlantic gauges have reported record low stream flows every day. "We've been through a severe winter drought that's not apparent" for much of the public, said Lins.

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening declared a drought emergency in part of the state Tuesday. Parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania are also in a drought emergency. New York City has declared a drought warning.

Both New York and Baltimore are pumping water from temporary supplies that have potentially less desirable color and taste.

Thousands of shallow wells in the region have run dry.

In the eastern states, the months from Sept. 1 through Feb. 28 were the driest in 107 years. La Nina -- a cooling of the Pacific Ocean surface -- has been blamed for recent warm, dry winters in the southeast. Persistent high pressure in the east has locked out storms.

Even with March's rains, "the outlook hasn't changed very much from what it was a month ago," said Lins.

This summer, it's highly likely that water shortages will occur, especially since the mid-Atlantic has had below-normal precipitation stretching back to last summer.

This summer -- as both evaporation rates and water usage rates rise -- mandatory water restrictions are likely in some areas, said Lins.

Even with March's normal precipitation, "unless we have above-normal precipitation, it's not going to do much to recharge the aquifers," he said.

The last major drought the mid-Atlantic experienced peaked in March 1999. But Lins described the current situation as "much more precarious than 1999."

Lins added that water restrictions and shortages probably would be imposed, since, "in some communities or counties, growth has been so large that drawing on groundwater sources could be exceeding the capacity of aquifers."

Many people may still not be aware that the "dry spell" has turned into a drought. "In the old days, you drilled a well only as deep as it needed to be to get water. Now they drill to allow for drought. So a lot of people may not be aware" that groundwater is running low, he said.

What can people do to avert water shortages? Lins said that it's going to take a change of mindset for people in the eastern U.S. states. "People in the East don't look at water in the way people in the West do."

In the western states, many people live in a semi-arid climate and they save water under normal circumstances, he said. "You have to begin to adopt the mindset that you turn the water on only when you need it. Over the course of a month or a year that can add up to a lot of water."

Short of hiking up the price of water, this mindset change is one of the only ways that people will begin to save more water, Lins said.

But people have lived their "whole lives never having to worry about it," he said.

Fortunately there are some technological changes and inventions that can help people conserve water -- such as low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads, he said. "There are things that make a difference. In the west most people use low-flow showerheads.

"People have to begin preparing for it now. It doesn't matter that it rained yesterday or that it might rain next Wednesday.

"It's a lifestyle change. It's not a hardship. It's changing habits."

Reports from the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, NE show that drought has engulfed nearly a third of the United States.

In the west, a severe drought in the northern Rockies is likely to continue, said federal officials. La Nina has been blamed for warm, dry summers in the northern Rocky Mountain states.

In Wyoming and Montana, a drought that has already lasted for three years is likely to continue. In southern California, this year's paltry wet season will likely harden into full-blown drought, forecasters reported. Los Angeles has seen a little more than one third its usual rainfall.

One popular definition of drought is when a region receives 70% of normal rain or snow for three months straight.

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