Region Learned Lessons From Past Droughts |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 1999; Page A1
The bad news keeps coming: It's the driest growing season in Maryland since record-keeping began a century ago. Some streams are at record lows. Wells are running dry. Water rationing is spreading.
This summer's persistent drought feels at times like it must be the worst that ever was. But in truth, the Washington area's last drought of the century is not yet its most severe, according to meteorologists and hydrologists. At least two others in the past 70 years have been as bad or, in some ways, worse. In that bit of history lies a story about how drought has changed the region's water policies -- and how this latest episode may change them yet again.
The current drought is not as broad and deep as the dry period during the 1930s that turned parts of the nation into the Dust Bowl. Nor has it yet lasted as long as the drought of the 1960s that spurred the region to expand its water supply network. It did descend with alarming swiftness and could, if it lingers much longer, become the worst Washington has known.
"Some of the lows we're seeing at this time of year are really extraordinarily low, but by historical standards this is a fairly short event so far," said Robert M. Hirsch, chief hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Weather records show that drought -- despite its designation as an abnormal event -- is not uncommon. For the years 1929 to 1988, for example, rainfall was below average more often than not in the region that includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District and Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The current drought has set a single-year record for driest growing season -- April through July -- in Maryland, and some farmers are in desperate straits. But the drought has not raised prices or lowered supply, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, because it is not hurting the nation's prime farming regions in the Midwest and California. Nor has it set the one-year dry record -- yet.
That honor goes to the 1930s.
That drought and those that followed it, especially the dry spell in the late 1960s, pushed the ever-expanding Washington region to consider how to better manage its water. And this drought again has highlighted the issue, with the region's efforts to deal with its water supply divided along state lines. With water limits imposed in the Maryland suburbs, and merely urged in the District and most of Northern Virginia, some political leaders are calling for a stronger regional policy on water management.
In August 1930, a newspaper photograph showed wagon tracks across the muddy bottom of the Seneca River in Montgomery County at a spot that normally was five feet deep. Montgomery County's water supply dwindled, and the District hooked up a new connection at Chevy Chase Circle to send more than 1 million gallons a day. The Loudoun corn crop was a total failure. Prayers for rain were requested at all Arlington churches.
"Farm ponds, creeks and wells dried up to the point that water was hauled in approximately one half of Virginia counties," according to a report by the Virginia Office of Climatology. "Water was so hard to come by in some areas that thirsty state highway crews were said to have been refused drinking water by nearby residents."
The drought even did what the law could not: It forced some Virginia moonshiners to abandon their stills for lack of corn and creek water.
The 1930-31 drought still holds the undisputed local record. In the District, Maryland and much of Virginia, 1930 was the driest year since the start of record-keeping in 1869.
The early 1930s also saw the lowest numbers for the Palmer Drought Index, a measure that combines temperature, precipitation and soil moisture.
The current drought includes about 10 percent of the country. The drought of the 1930s dried up about half the nation.
Conditions elsewhere were even worse during the 1930s. Parched farmland drove thousands to flee for California. Typhoid rates soared in some states. Some areas reported complete failure of all crops, and families resorted to stealing food.
The 1930s drought led to farming reforms such as planting windbreaks and using contour plowing to reduce erosion. It also inspired dam-building programs in the West, based on the new philosophy of managing water supplies.
Three decades later, the Washington area learned the need for water management, too.
The 1960s drought persisted for the entire decade, though it was at its worst from 1962 to 1966. Rainfall was never low enough to devastate agriculture. But in the benchmark year of 1966, the Potomac River dropped to its lowest level ever on a single day. Water utilities pulled out 80 percent of the river's daily flow.
In August, Prince George's County residents were ordered not to water lawns or wash cars. Voluntary rationing was begun in Northern Virginia. Thousands of trees planted along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway -- a Lady Bird Johnson beautification project -- wilted from lack of water. Numerous brush fires burst out in tinder-dry suburban woods.
And population projections for those expanding suburbs showed the region's water supply would be inadequate. Water shortages kept recurring -- in 1977 and 1981, and most Northern Virginia communities imposed restrictions on outdoor watering and other uses.
In 1982, Fairfax County opened a new intake on the Potomac River that solved its immediate supply problems. The Army Corps of Engineers had extracted a price for approving it -- the agency insisted the region approve a regional compact to share drinking water in times of need. In 1978, a compact was approved that is still in effect.
Not that the Corps of Engineers can take credit for the way things are now. The corps wanted to build dams -- first proposing 16 in the 1950s, then dropping back to recommending six, known as the "six-pack" proposal, in the 1970s.
But a study challenged that, advocating instead better interconnections between utilities. The only Corps of Engineers dam eventually built was Jennings Randolph, formerly called Bloomington, 50 miles up the Potomac River on the Maryland-West Virginia border. Utilities paid for it and for construction of Little Seneca Reservoir in Montgomery County in the 1980s.
Because of those water storage facilities, even if a 1930-size drought recurred, the reservoirs would not run dry until 2035, according to projections by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin that are based on current use patterns.
"We learned a lot during the 1960s," said Harry Lins, the USGS drought science coordinator, "and we were able to develop the necessary infrastructure both to cope with the growth that was taking place and to make sure within context of that growth we had enough water."
The defining characteristic of the current drought, for many experts, is how fast it happened, catching the public and some politicians off guard.
Already some officials have called for a second look at how the region allocates water. Is it fair, they ask, that one part of the region -- Maryland -- should impose restrictions that are only voluntary in the District and Virginia?
"We're all taking our water from the same place," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) last week as he called for the creation of a regional authority to govern water policy more strictly.
Many water distribution issues will be hashed out next year, when the region's three major water utilities undertake a study on the adequacy of the area's water supply.
The study will use updated population projections, water-use trends and other information to determine whether the current forecasts are correct.
Last spring, the League of Women Voters released its own study of the issue, concluding that regional water issues need confronting now.
"Drinking-water supply is not a long-run concern which can be put on a back burner while the region's jurisdictions focus on more immediate problems," the report said.
Three-fourths of the region's surface water comes from the Potomac River, which draws its water from a vast area. Most of the rest comes from the smaller Patuxent River in Maryland and the Occoquan River in Virginia.
For such big systems, which also have large reservoirs, "right now this is not that extreme an event," said Hirsch of the USGS. "If you are sitting on a very small stream and have a small reservoir, this is very, very serious."
As in many things, it's location, said Patrick Michaels, Virginia's state climatologist.
"It is one of these things where if you take a map of the area of severe drought . . . they are centered right on Washington, D.C., and I think that somehow magnifies the story."
Staff writers Tom Jackman and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company