U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman declared Maryland and additional parts of Virginia agricultural disaster areas yesterday as the drought continued to parch farms and yards across the mid-Atlantic region.
The declaration covers Washington's Maryland suburbs, which are now fading to dusty brown, rendering them federal disaster areas for the second time in two years. The announcement includes Delaware, Connecticut and parts of two other states and permits low-interest loans for farmers whose summer crops have shriveled under a combination of hot weather and scant rain.
Glickman's announcement at the White House came as Maryland completed its seventh day under water restrictions. Virginia and the District, meanwhile, continued their calls for voluntary conservation even as local water authorities that rely on the Potomac River tapped the Jennings Randolph Reservoir in Western Maryland yesterday, drawing down reserves for the first time since July 29.
Responding to increasing regional tensions over how to respond to the deepening drought, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) called for the creation of a water authority that would set benchmarks for when water restrictions would be required. Duncan said Virginia, Maryland and the District should be bound by the agency's decisions, ensuring that the sacrifice is spread more evenly in future water shortages.
"We're getting a lot of questions from people about why Maryland is doing one thing, Virginia is doing one thing, and the District is doing something else," Duncan said. "This is a question of fairness. We're all taking our water from the same place."
The Potomac River supplies water to Washington and its largest suburbs in Maryland and Virginia and is now running at less than half its normal capacity. But regional water agencies that draw from the river say that a reservoir network built over the past two decades holds enough water to supply customers through this fall.
That estimate may soon be put to the test. At the same briefing where Glickman made his announcement, National Weather Service Director Jack Kelly said long-range forecasts suggest that the drought will persist in the northeastern United States and worsen in southeastern states over the fall and winter.
More Virginia counties have been moving toward mandatory restrictions as the drought continues. Loudoun County is currently the only Virginia suburb of Washington to impose mandatory limits on water use. In Spotsylvania County, officials also imposed mandatory limits yesterday, saying the move was prompted by a five-inch drop in the county reservoir over the past week.
Since 1940, the Washington region's primary water supply has been governed by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. The commission, composed of appointed members from four states, the District and the federal government, was created to address river pollution.
But the commission serves only in an advisory capacity to the agencies that draw on the Potomac, primarily to make sure the supply is shared fairly. In 1982, the water agencies that supply Washington and its largest Maryland and Virginia suburbs signed binding agreements to make sure the Potomac never fell to dangerous levels.
The agencies also are governed by a low-flow allocation agreement signed 20 years ago. That agreement requires the agencies to recommend water restrictions if the Potomac falls to certain levels, though it hasn't approached those levels to date.
"Once this is over, we clearly need a better decision-making process in the region," Duncan said. "Some people think there is a water crisis; some say there isn't. There are too many mixed messages being sent right now."
Duncan's proposal received mixed reviews. Some environmentalists praised the idea, saying granting a regional water authority the power to impose restrictions would no longer leave local officials to interpret water supply figures on their own.
"The same information has been [studied] by different political leaders in the Washington metropolitan area, and their conclusions have been completely different," said Neal Fitzpatrick, conservation director of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
But other regional leaders said the proposal would confuse what is already a highly complex system governing the Potomac River.
"Even within Maryland, counties are responding differently to a state mandate," said Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "In Virginia, we have different sources of water, so I don't know what a regional authority would do for us. We don't need another bureaucracy."
Yesterday's declaration by Glickman covers all Maryland counties except four on the Eastern Shore. Those counties are still covered because they border those listed in the declaration, making more than 12,000 state farms eligible for loans of up to $500,000.
While thanking Glickman, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) reiterated his concern that most farmers cannot afford to take on debt and suggested that a federal grants program would be more helpful. A federal review of Maryland agriculture last week found that farmers in 19 counties had lost at least 30 percent of their crops, the threshold for disaster status.
"Because we have already had two dry seasons, farmers are already burdened with significant debt," Glendening said in a statement. "Crop losses from this severe drought may force farmers to choose whether to continue farming or to sell their land for development. . . . I will continue to push for additional aid to help our farmers survive this devastating drought."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.