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  • Special Report: The Drought of '99
  • Photo Gallery: Parched Earth

  •   Ground Water Still Low, Officials Say

    By Scott Wilson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, September 8, 1999; Page B1

    The long weekend of drenching rain brought mid-Atlantic states buckets of much-needed moisture and a new problem for political leaders urging conservation: how to convince the public that the severe drought persists.

    Back yards baked brown and firm are suddenly, after a couple of weeks of heavier-than-average rainfall, lush green and soft. The rivers and reservoirs supplying Washington and its suburbs with drinking water are nearly full. Roofs are leaking.

    But those changes only highlight the paradox of drought: Damp evenings and puddled basements belie the parched earth inches below the surface. Until the water table rises--and geologists have seen no indication that it has--the Washington region technically will remain dry as a bone.

    "These rains gave us a shot in the arm," said Gary Fisher, a surface water specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "But we are not recharging the ground water yet. The ground can only absorb water so fast, and when we get intense rains like we did with these thunderstorms, most of it runs off."

    The biggest beneficiaries of three days of storms--the last roar of Hurricane Dennis--have been the rivers and streams. Montgomery County's Seneca Creek, a key index of regional stream flow, is running at 10 times normal. The Patuxent River is flowing at 50 times the level it was two weeks ago.

    The Potomac River did not rise much as it nears Washington. But miles upstream, the river is bulging with water that should arrive in this area over the next few days. At Paw Paw, W.Va., the Potomac is roaring along at 3.5 billion gallons a day, almost triple the flow recorded at Little Falls, just northwest of the American Legion Memorial Bridge.

    But water officials say the rain came in torrents, running off into the rivers and streams rather than soaking into the ground. Fisher said recent storms so far have had little discernible effect on ground water measured at 13 sample wells.

    Indeed, despite the wet weather, the drought yesterday remained a chief policy concern across the region. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) proposed a $1 million aid package for county farmers who have suffered an estimated $10 million worth of crop damage during this dry season. The package, which requires County Council approval, would help corn, soybean, hay and other farmers struggling through the drought keep operations afloat.

    Duncan also is scheduled to appear before the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments today to call for the creation of a new authority to regulate the region's shared water supply during times of drought. The council comprises elected officials from Washington and surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia.

    Only Maryland imposed water restrictions on a statewide level in response to the drought, even though Virginia and the District share the Potomac. Duncan plans to ask a regional task force to establish clear thresholds for determining when water restrictions are necessary and imposing them automatically on all jurisdictions.

    "Clearly we need better cooperation within the region the next time a drought occurs, and a better understanding of when we declare some kind of water emergency," Duncan said.

    The improving river flows and rising reservoir levels, coupled with forecasts for more rain later this week, have generated pressure on public officials to ease what water restrictions remain in place. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) lifted statewide forced conservation measures last week, but several smaller towns and counties in the region have not done so.

    In Poolesville, a tiny town in western Montgomery, the elected council was scheduled to meet last night to decide whether to lift water restrictions imposed July 9--almost a month before similar limits took effect across Maryland. Some of the 4,400 town residents served by seven wells have been lobbying town officials to ease off on the limits, even though recent rainfall has done little to bolster ground water.

    Jim Alsobrook, the Poolesville town manager, said the rains merely kept demand low in recent weeks. He sees little evidence that ground water is rising again but said the restrictions may no longer be needed because water consumption is predicted to decline during the cool fall months.

    The recent rains have helped some areas far more than others. Dulles International Airport, for example, received less than two inches of rain, while Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County recorded more than four inches. For this year, rainfall at Reagan National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport are now less than an inch below normal. At Dulles, annual rainfall totals are more than inch above normal.

    The region's rainfall deficits, however, are more severe when measured over the past 12 months. Loudoun County, which still has mandatory conservation measures in place, has an eight-inch rainfall deficit over the past year even after the weekend rains.

    Officials there said the recent storms boosted Goose Creek--a key source of water for county residents--by fivefold. But the creek flow diminished quickly after a jolt from heavy August rains, and officials are assessing now whether to keep the restrictions in place.

    "You get a little bit of rain, and it makes your grass green," said Melody Paschetag, a National Weather Service hydrologist. "But the deeper levels are very dry. The long-term drought is still here."

    Staff writer Maria Glod contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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