Empty rain gauges mean dirty cars and brown lawns

Mid-Atlantic's worst drought of the century brings water rationing and showering with timers.

Hydrologist Colin McTigue is standing in the middle of the Rahway River trying to measure the tea-colored fluid languidly passing over rocks. In a normal year, the water would be up to his hips. But, this year, the water is flowing around his ankles.

"I've never seen the river so low," says Mr. McTigue who regularly measures the flow for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Chalk up the dribble in the Rahway to what could be the worst drought of the century for the mid-Atlantic region. From North Carolina to New York, the rain gauges are coming up dry. Crops are shriveling, lawns are straw-colored and rock hard, and governors are talking about some form of water restrictions in all of the drought-affected states.

This week, President Clinton said he would seek $10.8 billion in drought relief for the whole country.

To remedy the situation, Mother Nature will have to supply lots of water. Simple showers won't do. Neither will a day or two of rain. Instead, hydrologists say, it's best to think wet - very wet. "We need a major nor'easter or a hurricane," says Bob Hirsch, chief hydrologist for the USGS in Reston, Va.

Over the short term, the weather service says it's not likely the area will see much relief. It predicts only normal rain for the month of August.

"Normally things are drying out in July and August," says Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "The main thing to turn things around would be a tropical storm out of the Gulf of Mexico. The pattern changes when that happens."

Until it starts bucketing down, communities are squeezing the most out of their water supplies. On Tuesday, Bergen County in northern New Jersey went to mandatory water rationing that forbids washing cars and watering lawns. This followed Gov. Christie Whitman's issuance of a drought warning, which could be the prelude to statewide water restrictions. Yesterday, Maryland's Gov. Parris Glendening declared mandatory water restrictions.

For a preview of what residents of the region may face as water restrictions are tightened, look no further than Poolesville, Md., located about 45 minutes from Washington. The Montgomery County town pumps its water from wells. But, with the dry weather, the town had to pump the wells for 21 hours a day just to keep up with demand, says town manager Jim Alsobrook. That didn't leave the well enough time to replenish.

SO ON July 9, residents were banned from watering their grass, washing their cars, or using water outside. The grass may be brown, but water use is down by 100,000 gallons a day. "People are finding innovative ways to deal with the inconvenience," says Mr. Alsobrook.

For Frank Jamison, lifelong Poolesville resident, that means putting a kitchen timer in the shower to remind his children to stay in for three minutes or less. "I figure, it's summer, they're kids. How clean do they need to be?" he says.

While homeowners face mere inconveniences, farmers face disaster. Mr. Jamison, through his real estate firm, manages 1,800 acres of farmland, where yield of soybeans, corn, and wheat is down by more than a third of a normal year.

"We just haven't had any moisture going back into the soil," he says, noting that the drought combined with rock-bottom commodity prices may drive many farmers out of business.

"It's a disastrous blow. Every farmer is suffering this year," says Don Vandrey with Maryland's Department of Agriculture. He notes that the current drought actually began last summer, and has continued and worsened this summer. Yield is down as much as 80 percent at farms in some parts of the state, according to Mr. Vandrey.

For some communities, the drought may mean a change in drinking-water quality. For example, salt water is moving up the Hudson River at the rate of 1 mile per day and Poughkeepsie officials - who draw water from the river - are warning residents with salt-restricted diets that the water is changing. "Removing the salt from the water supply would triple the cost and that's not prudent right now," says Randy Alstadt, water plant administrator.

For many, one of the biggest effects of the drought is on backyard gardens. In Riegelsville, Pa., Ken and Sue Simmons's garden is wilting under the sun. Without rain this week, it will totally dry up. "I'm afraid there won't be any tomato juice this year," says Mrs. Simmons, who usually has enough to give to grateful relatives.

If the drought continues, it will also affect the high school football season. Back in Rahway, Veterans Memorial Field where the Rahway Indians play is rock hard. Tom Lewis, Rahway's athletic director worries the field will turn to dust once the season begins. But, then he adds, "maybe there's some way we can use the cement-like conditions to our advantage."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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