For the first month in many, rainfall in Maryland actually has exceeded normal levels for October, but even the recent drenchings have not dented the state's most serious drought in decades.
In fact, water wonks at the Maryland Department of the Environment stress that only a couple of weeks of steady wet would make a difference and allow officials to begin relaxing strict water conservation rules. The state needs to be hit with the equivalent of a monsoon or a hurricane to truly make up for precipitation shortfalls, they say, especially the hardest-hit central and Eastern Shore regions.
"We're still in a huge deficit," said department spokesman John S. Verrico. "We're only getting normal amounts right now. People forget how much rain we normally get."
The numbers are daunting. Maryland usually receives 47 inches of rainfall annually. During the last drought in 1999, the total was 8.3 inches below that. By this August, the year's measure already was more than a foot below normal.
Despite recent improvement, rainfall is still 11 inches off the mark, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But looking at that overall figure is folly because western Maryland, which has received almost its usual amount of precipitation, artificially boosts the statewide average.
For Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and for Southern Maryland, rainfall remains less than 65 percent of normal, which authorities consider an emergency. Still, those areas have weathered the drought somewhat better because they draw water from deep aquifers that are less vulnerable to a few dry seasons.
Not so in central Maryland, including Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Harford and Howard counties and parts of Montgomery County, where aquifers are shallower. Farmers have been devastated, with many of them losing 20 percent to 60 percent of their crops. Despite the recent rain, groundwater and stream flows are less than 5 percent of normal.
The dry conditions, which have not been this extreme since droughts in 1934 and 1966, prompted Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to declare a water emergency in the spring.
A lot of water will have to flow under the bridge before the drought ends, officials say. October has offered cautious optimism, with four inches of rain falling by last week. Normally, October records 3.2 inches.
"This is great," said an excited Saeid Kasraei, the state's water administrator, who scrutinizes rainfall charts like a Wall Street mogul tracks the stock market. "Anything above 3.2 inches is chipping away from the total deficit. . . . If the trend continues, it's very promising."
Kasraei said the state was entering an important period for determining how the drought would affect next year. During the fall, trees and other vegetation use less water than they do during the summer. Coupled with the change in temperature, which reduces evaporation, more of the rain will be able to penetrate into the all-important groundwater.
"If we start getting about one or two inches above normal rainfall for each month, that would be good," Kasraei said. "If it's from this period now until March, that would be ideal. But at this point, we'll take anything we can get."
In the meantime, the central Maryland and Eastern Shore regions continue to live under water restrictions, which were tightened in August as water levels fell even lower. Businesses have been required to reduce usage by 10 percent, and golf courses are able to water their greens and tees only at night. Residents cannot water lawns during the day or wash cars. Nor can they wash paved surfaces such as streets, roads, sidewalks and driveways, or use water for ornamental fountains and waterfalls.
The state's goal was to reduce consumption by 10 percent; so far officials have seen about 6 percent conservation, Kasraei said.
As for removing the restrictions, he said, "I don't think that's something that's going to happen very soon unless the trend [continues] over the next couple of months." Should the trend reverse again, more restrictive conservation measures could be in store for more Maryland residents.
"If nature doesn't help us," he warned, "we're not going to be in good shape next summer."