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Area's Aridity Rises To Level of Drought

Mary Ann Livingston waters the maples at Betty's Azalea Ranch in Fairfax, where employees hand-water plants to combat dry conditions.
Mary Ann Livingston waters the maples at Betty's Azalea Ranch in Fairfax, where employees hand-water plants to combat dry conditions. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2005

The long dry stretch in the Washington area officially was classified as a moderate drought yesterday, confirming what gardeners, umbrella peddlers and anyone with a lawn has known for weeks.

A map produced by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a Nebraska-based consortium of academics and federal agencies, was upgraded to show the mid-Atlantic region in the lowest of its four drought categories. Until yesterday, the Washington area had been classified one notch lower, as abnormally dry.

The area's last significant rain was four weeks ago, when a quarter-inch fell Aug. 27 and again the day after. In September, the precipitation has been barely perceptible: only 0.01 of an inch, on Sept. 15.

Virginia and Maryland officials said there was no cause for alarm. Moderate droughts are not that unusual, occurring every six years on average and particularly in autumn. The first day of fall was yesterday.

But in the fall, water demand routinely lessens as farmers irrigate less often and trees lose their leaves.

"Had this occurred in mid-June to mid-August, it would be much more serious than it is now," said Patrick Michaels, a Virginia state climatologist.

Terry Wagner, head of a Virginia drought monitoring task force, said that after three years of above-normal rainfall in the region, the drought's impact should be minimal. Such measures as stream flows, groundwater levels and reservoir levels are adequate, he said. The main concern is the threat of more wildfires in the fall, Wagner said.

"We're nowhere near calling for voluntary conservation," he said. "We're looking more closely at individual areas, and based on what we find, we'd start a public education process even before that."

Maryland officials said that though the weather has been drier than usual, no related problems have been reported.

Richard McIntyre, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, said he has heard some farmers say the only reason they are able to make money this year is because they have been watering more than usual.

Norman Bennett, a federal Agriculture Department official in Maryland, said some soybeans from the season's second crop might not develop fully because of the lack of rain. Because enough rain fell early in the summer, though, other crops have not been affected, he said.

"We're not even calling it a drought yet, just sort of a dry spell," he said. "There are some obvious signs. Homeowners just have to look at their lawns, and some trees are starting to drop their leaves already. But it's probably late enough in the season not to have a disastrous effect."


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