Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman yesterday declared West Virginia and every neighboring county in Maryland and Virginia a disaster area because of the prolonged heat and drought that have destroyed crops and dried streams and lakes.
In the Washington region, the declaration includes parched Loudoun County, where officials have imposed mandatory restrictions on watering lawns and washing cars. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening asked Glickman yesterday to declare an additional 14 Maryland counties drought disaster areas. That request includes Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and virtually all the rest of the state save for a portion of the Eastern Shore.
Maryland environmental officials today will recommend statewide water restrictions to Glendening (D). Already, the governor has asked Marylanders to voluntarily stop watering lawns and washing cars, to take shorter showers and to make other conservation efforts. He has said it is all but certain that some restrictions will become mandatory.
Glickman's disaster designation makes farmers eligible for low-interest loans and other assistance.
"This has been a devastating year for farmers in West Virginia and all over the mid-Atlantic region," Glickman said. "Farm prices are the lowest in a decade, and this drought couldn't have come at a worse time."
Henry Stowers, who farms about 400 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans in Loudoun, said he dreads the idea of incurring debt -- even with a low-interest loan -- but thinks many farmers are likely to seize the opportunity.
"I think it'll be a good opportunity for some people to keep the bills paid up," said Stowers, 64. "A loan is good, but it has to be paid back."
Stowers said his parched fields bring to mind stories his father had passed down about the 1930s drought. "I'd heard about that all my life," he said.
Now he sees his corn crop failing and hopes the soybeans are hardy enough to produce a good harvest.
"You just watch everything wither away," Stowers said. "What we need is about three days of good, soaking rain, and even then it would probably be too late."
The drought that has plagued the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this summer is the second-worst of the century, federal officials said. In the Washington area, the period from August 1998 to July 1999 was the second-driest 12-month period on record, with a total of 24.13 inches of rain at Reagan National Airport.
Walking amid stunted soybean plants that should have been waist-high in Frederick County, Md., Glickman said, "Presuming the fields are as they are here, I'm sure Maryland will also be declared a disaster area."
The Agriculture Department's decision yesterday was prompted by a request from West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood (R), who asked that the entire state be declared a drought disaster area. Officials there said they were experiencing one of the worst droughts in state history.
Thirty-three contiguous counties in Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania automatically received the same classification, said Laura Trivers, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department. The Virginia counties include Alleghany, Augusta, Bath, Bland, Buchanan, Clarke, Craig, Frederick, Giles, Highland, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Tazewell. The Maryland counties are Garrett, Allegany and Washington.
Officials in Loudoun said the low-interest loans would provide some relief to farmers whose finances have soured because of depressed prices and several years of extremely dry weather.
"Most of them are going to be looking at this year not having any hay or straw because of the drought we've had," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Dale Polen Myers (R-At Large).
On Sunday, Loudoun's water restrictions took effect. People served by the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority cannot use hoses or big buckets to wash cars, and they can water their lawns only every other day.
Authorities said yesterday that they had given verbal warnings to five residents and one business. Loudoun sheriff's officials said second-time violators would face a misdemeanor charge carrying a fine of as much as $500.
Those given warnings included three people using hoses to wash cars, two others watering their lawns, and a Wal-Mart store in Sterling where a worker was hosing down car repair bays.
Staff writers Maria Glod and Daniel LeDuc contributed to this report.