Few April showers came Washington's way last month, making it the driest April on record and causing "severe drought" in the region, according to the National Weather Service.
A paltry 0.05 inches of rain fell at Washington National Airport last month, compared to an average April rainfall of 2.93 inches and an abundant 3.71 inches last year, according to weather service meteorologist Kenneth Bergman.
That trickle -- what a heavy summer thunderstorm could dump in less than a minute, Bergman said -- represented the least April rain since the weather service started keeping such measurements in 1941, and the capital's second driest month on record.
Local water officials said that adequate reserves are in place to avoid severe shortages unless the rainfall remains as scarce as in April. But Maryland and Virginia farmers, who have begun their spring planting, are starting to worry about their crops.
For the city dwellers, a number of local lawns are showing signs of "drought stress," warned Tim Dickensheets, manager of the Springfield branch of ChemLawn Tree & Shrub Care.
Dickensheets prescribed lavish watering, mowing only in cool weather and keeping off the lawn.
The lack of rainfall has produced one benefit: Researchers on the Chesapeake Bay report an increase in the oyster harvest.
The drought is part of a dry spell that has parched the East Coast from Florida to New England. Drought emergencies have been declared in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, where water reserves have sunk dangerously low.
In New York City, where its three reservoirs are only 61 percent full, restaurants are allowed to serve water only on request, car-washing is banned, fountains are switched off, and Mayor Edward I. Koch has urged residents to forsake baths for brief showers.
Midwestern states, in contrast, have been deluged, with such places as International Falls, Minn., and Marquette, Mich., soaked by the wettest Aprils on record.
The previous Washington record for most arrid April was 0.26 inches in 1942, five times last month's amount.
The weather service is predicting below-normal rainfall in May as well, continuing a pattern that started last summer and has yielded two-thirds of the average precipitation since late July.
While the "extended outlook" mentions a "chance of a shower" Thursday and the possibility of rain Friday and Saturday, "in the immediate future, it doesn't look like there's going to be any big change," Bergman said.
That forecast has Maryland and Virginia farmers worried.
In St. Mary's and Charles counties in southern Maryland, tobacco farmers have delayed transplanting plants from covered beds, according to Bubby Norris, field coordinator for the Maryland Tobacco Growers Association in Cheltenham.
Norris said farmers "are taking a chance if they plant now. With how dry it is, they might have to replant."
In Southampton County in southern Virginia, where peanuts, corn and other crops amount to a $50 million-a-year business, "They're all hoping it rains real soon," said agriculture extension agent Ben S. Lee.
"Last year, we had an excessive amount of rain during the planting period and it delayed the planting," Lee said. "From one extreme to another extreme."
But on Maryland's Eastern Shore, sapped by what the National Weather Service labels an "extreme drought," the dry conditions have produced saltier than normal water, auguring a bountiful oyster harvest from the Chesapeake Bay, according to scientists at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Laboratories on the Choptank River.
"Things are really looking good for this year," said oyster specialist Roger Newell who, along with colleague Thomas Jones, found that oysters breed better in water with a high salt content.
Such conditions have been created this year by reduced flow from fresh-water rivers into the bay.
"We've been doing a sort of antirain dance," Newell said.
But, he noted, the down side of the salty water is the prospect of more stinging sea nettles to drive swimmers out of the water.
"We have a saying here on the Eastern Shore: God gave us sea nettles to keep Baltimoreans out of the bay," Newell said.
As for the prospect of water shortages in the Washington area, "If what we saw in April is a sign of things to come, yes, we're going to have a water shortage in late summer," said Thomas Stumm, director of operations at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies water to Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
But, he said, although the WSSC's two reservoirs have dropped one foot below normal and the daily water flow on the Potomac has slowed to 4 billion gallons daily from the normal 7 billion, supply still exceeds demand.
"There's plenty of water in the river," said Perry Costas, deputy chief of the Washington Aqueduct, which serves the District.