Farmers, gardeners and town water officials are turning their gazes toward the parched landscape of Loudoun and Fauquier counties, concocting ways to get the most from the little water they have.
Most of them have had a lot of practice. Rainfall patterns this year resemble those of last year's protracted drought.
"The last couple of months we've only gotten a couple inches [of rain] a month where normally we'd have had more rain in these latter months, not back in January," said Peter Holden, district liaison at the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District. "It's the same thing that happened last year."
Many farmers are cooling their heels: The soil is too dry to plant corn and soybeans. Andrew Gerachis, county horticultural agent at the Loudoun Agricultural Extension Office, described the soil as "powdery," the worst conditions for planting row crops.
"As soon as you open the ground, you lose what moisture there is, and if there isn't adequate soil moisture, your seeds won't germinate," Gerachis said.
Hay farmers are faring only a little better. The first cutting has yielded a much smaller than average crop, although there is some good news: The dry heat is ideal for curing harvested hay in the fields before it is baled.
About 100,000 acres of Loudoun's total 330,000 acres -- half of its 200,000 agricultural acres -- are planted with hay, Holden said. But he estimated that the summer's harvests will be 40 percent to 50 percent smaller than usual. Farmers are concerned about having adequate supplies for horses and cattle, which depend on hay to make it through the winter.
"If you have to start feeding the hay starting September or October, and you only made half as much hay as you normally do," Holden asked, "what are you going to feed them in the winter? Snowballs?"
In Fauquier, hay yields are about one-third to one-half of normal, making it necessary to import hay from out of state, according to Keith Dickinson, the county's extension agent.
Dickinson said some Fauquier farmers have been forced to sell their cattle for slaughter because of the lack of water.
"There's some situations where pastures are just not usable because there is no water source," Dickinson said. "I've got reports that there's already some liquidation going on. . . . It's a bad situation."
Dickinson said that feed corn used for cattle has been decimated. The new crop already is withering from heat and lack of water.
"I've never seen corn curl up from drought stress when it's less than 18 inches tall," he said.
As a result, he said, several farmers are harvesting other grain crops as they mature to store for use instead of corn. Because those crops, such as barley, contain less protein and fewernutrients, farmers will be forced to buy dietary supplements, Dickinson said.
"There will be more out-of-pocket expenses for the farmer," he said.
Farmers who hoped to sell their grain crops are being hindered not only by the drought but also by good harvests in the Midwest, which have led to lower prices.
"You've got a double whammy," Dickinson said.
Barney Durrett, general manager of the Fauquier County Water and Sanitation Authority, said the wells the authority administers are so deep that they have been buffered from drought. However, the wells, which supply about one-fifth of the water to county households, could be affected if the drought persists, Durrett said.
But many managers of area water resources are beginning to fret, even though summer has not officially begun.
Small Loudoun towns with public water supplies are implementing or considering conservation measures. In Round Hill, the town utility manager mailed letters to water customers announcing mandatory water-use restrictions -- and a $500 fine for violations. The town's reservoir dipped below half its capacity of 200,000 gallons in the last few weeks, said Mark A. Albright, water chairman on the Round Hill Town Council.
Albright said he is not sure whether the reservoir has been drained nearly dry by the Loudoun County School District, which recently flushed water lines and watered sod at the new Round Hill Elementary School, or by a leak somewhere in the 14 miles of the town's water lines -- in addition to the general dryness. A contractor has been hired to inspect the lines.
The Loudoun County Sanitation Authority has imposed voluntary restrictions. Dale Hammes, general manager of the authority, said he is pleading with people to eliminate any "nonessential" uses of water: Washing cars or watering the lawn, for example.
"We're asking people to conserve and try to limit their consumption," Hammes said. "When your plants and shrubs are needing it most because there's no rain, we also are requesting you cut back because the streams and the rivers are low."
But residents of Purcellville -- another western Loudoun town with a history of water shortages -- aren't facing restrictions because the J.T. Hirst Reservoir is full.
That's good news for the town's water managers, who last year watched in dismay as the water level fell in the reservoir -- two man-made lakes on Short Hill Mountain. The 2,800 residents of Purcellville adapted to voluntary restrictions.
Recreational boaters and residents in the Ashburn area recall the effect of last summer's drought on Beaver Dam Creek Reservoir. Anne Harvey, 43, a Purcellville resident who likes to row in the reservoir, said the lake was "so dry you could almost drive your car across it."
This year, the 1.3 billion-gallon reservoir is already 45 percent below capacity, said Shahram Mohsenin, director of utilities in Fairfax City, which has jurisdiction over the Loudoun reservoir because it helps supply Fairfax.
But the Beaver Dam facility is used mainly for storage, Mohsenin said. The city's 200 million-gallon Goose Creek Reservoir, also in Loudoun County, is full, and it has a dependable source of water in Goose Creek, he said.
Still, the lack of rainfall has Mohsenin concerned. "If this continues, there's a possibility that we would go to restrictions," he said.
Residents are starting to become alarmed, too. They need only look around to see the effects of a dry season.
But Don Kane, a longtime resident of Purcellville, said he expects to manage just fine if the town imposes water restrictions.
He has his own water-conservation plan: He will catch the water he uses to rinse vegetables in the sink and, instead of letting it run down the drain, will haul it outside and throw it on his wife's backyard vegetable garden.
Still, Kane doesn't hold out much hope that he'll be eating fresh garden salads all summer -- concoctions of lettuce, tomatoes, peas and squash he has enjoyed in summers of yore.
"That's the sad part," Kane said. "My wife's put a lot of time and money into the garden, and it looks like the whole thing is going to dry out."
Anne Harvey, 43, who lives in a converted 1908 farmhouse in Purcellville, said she uses her back yard to supply the florist shop she owns in Herndon.
"I've stopped putting anything in for this year, it's so dry," Harvey said. "Normally, I'd be planting perennials -- lavender and black-eyed Susans and delphinium."
Harvey, who keeps a garden pool stocked most summers with lily pads and Japanese carp -- known as koi -- said she gave up on the fish this year because she wasn't going to be able to keep them healthy in a pool that evaporates every couple of days.
But she went ahead and planted vegetables for the household -- an optimist's approach to a dry summer. So far, the vegetables are shorter than usual, Harvey said, but she is convinced she can keep them alive.
"I'm watering by hand," she said.
CAPTION: Purcellville farmer Charlie Cockerill loads hay. The drought, good for drying hay, is cutting yields.
CAPTION: Beaver Dam Creek Reservoir is almost half-empty, reminiscent of 1998, when it was "so dry you could almost drive your car across it," said Anne Harvey, of Purcellville.