Although the effects of summer's near-record drought in the Washington area were largely washed away by September's storms, the recent return of generally dry conditions is raising concerns that the region could bake again next year.
Much depends on the amount of precipitation this winter, which forecasters say may turn on the vagaries of La Nina, the Pacific weather phenomenon that sometimes follows its better-known sibling, El Nino. National Weather Service forecasts call for a normal level of winter precipitation, but possibly with a nasty mix of snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain and maybe a repeat of last winter's ice storms.
Even if the drought makes a comeback, the region's water supplies are more than sufficient to deal with it, water authorities say. The mandatory water restrictions imposed by Maryland and some Virginia localities at the height of the summer's dry spell were unnecessary, according to a report adopted this month by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The year-long drought was effectively broken by September's rains, notably the deluges delivered by Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd. Now, despite the drizzle of recent days, "we appear to be back into a fairly dry pattern," said Harry Lins, a drought science coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey.
"The only thing that's preventing us from having a real noticeable drought is that we've entered that time of year when water demand goes down."
Relatively little water is used outdoors this time of year, and what is used doesn't evaporate as it does in summer; also, homeowners need not fuss about watering their lawns and shrubs, which are largely dormant now, Lins said. But unless normal levels of moisture provide a "recharge" this winter, "we could be back in drought conditions" by next summer, he said.
West of Washington, the drought was never really broken, so the mountains remain "very, very dry right now," Lins said. Forest fires pose a concern, though not as much as during the summer when both camping and lightning storms are more frequent. Just last week, though, more than 200 firefighters battled a 1,600-acre man-made wildfire along the eastern edge of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
In the Washington area, total rainfall is slightly above normal for the year to date, although the amount for the last few weeks has dipped below the norm and streams are quite low, said Kenneth Reeves, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, a commercial forecasting company.
"You can't normally get rid of an extreme dry period with one or two heavy rains," he said. "There is the potential out there" for a return of the drought.
According to Andy Pace, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, "The precipitation outlook for the Washington area looks like near normal to slightly above normal" for December through February. In part because of La Nina, temperatures this winter could be "milder than normal," he said, but the region also could see "mixed precipitation events" such as ice storms.
In any event, the area's water supply remains in good shape, although existing regional agreements on water usage during severe droughts and other emergencies need to be modified to "increase cooperation, communication and coordination among local governments," the council of governments said in its Nov. 10 resolution.
The water supply was a source of protracted squabbling last summer among Maryland, Virginia and the District because of their differing responses to the drought, which ranked among the most severe for the area this century. From August 1998 to August 1999, rainfall was 20 to 40 percent below normal, and water was released for the first time from two reservoirs to augment flows in the Potomac River, which provides about 80 percent of the region's drinking water.
Although Maryland and some localities in Virginia imposed mandatory restrictions, "the region was never at risk of running out of drinking water," COG's resolution stated. What's more, COG's water supply task force reported, water supplies "would have been adequate to meet full demands even if the drought had persisted into the fall and winter."
Citing "substantial public and media confusion" last summer about the state of the region's water supply, COG's report noted that "there was no formalized, coordinated mechanism for informing local governments . . . about the drought management actions taken by the major water suppliers."
COG has directed its task force to develop a program for implementing its recommendations, among them, updating the 1994 Metropolitan Washington Water Supply Emergency Plan to specify an escalating set of actions to take during severe droughts and to establish a panel that would coordinate a regional response.
CAPTION: The summer drought left the ground parched and stifled vegetation. At the current rate, forecasters say, next summer could be more of the same.