The long dry stretch in the Washington area officially was classified as a moderate drought yesterday, confirming what gardeners, umbrella peddlers and anyone with a lawn has known for weeks.
A map produced by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a Nebraska-based consortium of academics and federal agencies, was upgraded to show the mid-Atlantic region in the lowest of its four drought categories. Until yesterday, the Washington area had been classified one notch lower, as abnormally dry.
The area's last significant rain was four weeks ago, when a quarter-inch fell Aug. 27 and again the day after. In September, the precipitation has been barely perceptible: only 0.01 of an inch, on Sept. 15.
Virginia and Maryland officials said there was no cause for alarm. Moderate droughts are not that unusual, occurring every six years on average and particularly in autumn. The first day of fall was yesterday.
But in the fall, water demand routinely lessens as farmers irrigate less often and trees lose their leaves.
"Had this occurred in mid-June to mid-August, it would be much more serious than it is now," said Patrick Michaels, a Virginia state climatologist.
Terry Wagner, head of a Virginia drought monitoring task force, said that after three years of above-normal rainfall in the region, the drought's impact should be minimal. Such measures as stream flows, groundwater levels and reservoir levels are adequate, he said. The main concern is the threat of more wildfires in the fall, Wagner said.
"We're nowhere near calling for voluntary conservation," he said. "We're looking more closely at individual areas, and based on what we find, we'd start a public education process even before that."
Maryland officials said that though the weather has been drier than usual, no related problems have been reported.
Richard McIntyre, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, said he has heard some farmers say the only reason they are able to make money this year is because they have been watering more than usual.
Norman Bennett, a federal Agriculture Department official in Maryland, said some soybeans from the season's second crop might not develop fully because of the lack of rain. Because enough rain fell early in the summer, though, other crops have not been affected, he said.
"We're not even calling it a drought yet, just sort of a dry spell," he said. "There are some obvious signs. Homeowners just have to look at their lawns, and some trees are starting to drop their leaves already. But it's probably late enough in the season not to have a disastrous effect."
Many farmers and gardeners, however, have been calling this a drought for weeks.
At Scenic View Orchards north of Thurmont, the ears of sweet corn are smaller than usual and a patch of beans emerged hollow due to the dry weather, said Betty Calimer, a part-owner of the business.
"The ears would have been a lot larger if we'd had rain," she said. "In the late summer when it was so dry, we didn't replant [a second crop] because we knew the seeds wouldn't come up."
The National Arboretum in Northeast Washington is allowing the grass to lie dormant. That turns it an unsightly brown, but it should revitalize with the first significant rainfall, said horticulturist Carol Bordelon. The other plantings are being irrigated heavily.
"We recommend giving plants a deep, infrequent watering, instead of short periods," she said. "Just turn on the sprinkler for a couple hours. Otherwise, the trees will absorb all the water."
The plantings are a deep, lush green at Betty's Azalea Ranch in Fairfax, thanks to four wells and 250 water heads, as well as six full-time employees whose sole responsibility is to hand-water the 16 acres of plants, longtime owner Steve Cockerham said. Employees might die but the plants are not allowed to, he tells them semi-jokingly.
"This is probably about the driest fall I've ever seen," said Cockerham as he strolled past hundreds of pots of azaleas being showered with drops from a rotating water head.
Many homeowners do not realize how much water their new plantings need.
"Almost all our plant returns are for lack of water," he said. "And they all say they have watered the plants constantly, while they're standing beside a plant that looks like it came out of the microwave."
Most of Cockerham's customers are determined to have a lawn worthy of their neighbors' envy, no matter how much watering it requires.
If they slack off, flowers that bloom in springtime will be noticeably sparser.
"There'll be stuff missing, particularly on younger plants," he said. "Older plants can overcome it, but they won't bloom quite as profusely."
Rain clouds, however, might be on the horizon. The National Weather Service is predicting rain for Monday and Tuesday.
"And with all the Farmers' Almanac predictions, it might get real wet," said McIntyre of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Now if we could just get the almanac to predict lower gas prices."