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Dryness East Coast*

Arid, Arid, All Around, And Nature's Out of Sync

By Michael E. Ruane

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, February 28, 2002; Page A01

On the Potomac, low water flow has made the waterunnaturally clear, and the migrating herring easy targets for hungry birds.

In Maryland, fisheries experts had to evict 40,000 trout from a crowded hatchery because water from the feeder spring is one-third of normal.

And in the lower Potomac River, low flow and the resultant record high salinity are suspected in an algae bloom that has halted the oyster harvest.

Farm ponds in Virginia are mud flats. Connecticut's maple trees are low on sap. And in some parts of Pennsylvania, groundwater has receded 500 feet below the surface.

It may still be winter and the start of nature's high water demand still weeks away, but the drought that has now marched locally through three seasons is posting ever more dire warnings throughout the mid-Atlantic ecosystem.

"I don't know if people realize the level of severity," said Virginia's top state climatologist, Patrick Michaels. "It's not a pretty picture."

Scott Aker, a horticulturist at the National Arboretum, where holly and magnolia trees already are stressed, said, "We stand to really be in a disastrous situation if we don't change this weather pattern."

The trouble, of course, has been the weather. Specifically the local weather. The National Weather Service said yesterday that precipitation at Reagan National Airport is almost 13 inches below normal for the period September through February, helping to make this the second-driest winter on record in Washington.

"It's the same problem we've had" all season, said Michaels, of the Virginia Climatology Office, at the University of Virginia. "When we get these fronts and storms through, the precipitation tends to be concentrated to our south and to our north. We get left in the middle."

"There's no larger holistic picture here, where we can blame El Niño or anything like that," he said. "It's a very localized phenomenon."

And though there are clear drought indicators and official watches and warnings up and down the East Coast, the Washington area included, experts have said that winter has masked some of the situation.

Lawns aren't watered. Pools aren't filled. This area's main reservoirs are full. Even most trees, before the spring "leaf out," aren't consuming ground moisture the way they will come summer.

If you're going to have a drought, one expert said recently, this is the time to have it.

But as the weeks pass and each forecast of precipitation fizzles, nature's caution signs have accumulated.

For example, the water in the Anacostia and Potomac river tributaries, which have registered record low flows in recent months, has become, as a result, unusually clear, according to Jim Cummins, a migratory fish expert with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

"And clarity of the water, while something we think of as being really good," he said, "for migratory fish, that's not so good."

Not only does murky spring water signal to fish that the way is open for upstream migration, but it offers them protection, he said. "Clear water makes predation on the adults and young a lot more intense."

Fish are tasty meals for ospreys, eagles, cormorants, egrets and herons. "And if they're easy to see, it's easier to capture them," he said. River herring, which spawn in the streams, are especially vulnerable. "If the water's clear and low, it's easier pickings," he said.

Farther west, other fish species have also been affected.

At Maryland's Albert Powell Fish Hatchery, near Hagerstown, where thousands of rainbow trout are reared each year, about 40,000 have been sent out for early stocking, in part because of low water.

This time of year, Beaver Creek spring, the state's third-biggest, should be feeding the hatchery's cement troughs 4,000 gallons of water a minute, officials said Monday. Instead, it is producing only about 1,500 gallons a minute.

As a result, dissolved oxygen levels have dropped, fish waste is not properly flushed, and hatchery experts have grown increasingly concerned. Waste buildup can lead to disease, and reduced oxygen can lead to death.

"If dissolved oxygen drops, fish start to suffocate," said Howard Stinefelt, a state coldwater fisheries specialist. "Imagine packing a room full of people and sealing up the doors."

He said experts knew they had to act before that happened.

Stinefelt said the hatchery staff had been worried since fall. "We kept saying, 'It's going to rain any week now.' Here it is, late February, and it still has not come."

He said the staff added aerators to try to boost oxygen, and recycled water to increase volume. But it was not enough. "We just need more water," he said.

So about a month ago, the hatchery began moving out the trout, weeks before the normal stocking season. "That was the only option," Stinefelt said. "Use them or lose them."

The early stocking program ended last week, and pressure at the hatchery was lessened. But now the regular stocking season is approaching, and Stinefelt has started scouting streams to see if their water levels can support trout.

Many probably can't. "I almost know what the answer is, but I still have to go out there and look.

"Most of these streams will have a few big pools in them, but the flow between pools has nearly stopped," he said. Normally, he said, those streams are canoeable and look beautiful. Now, the amount of fishable water has dropped by 80 percent. "Now, they look sick."

In Virginia, said Michaels, the state climatologist, another key drought sentinel is very simple: farm ponds.

"There's one indicator that really raises red flags in the climate community, and that's when agricultural ponds over extensive regions are either low or dry," he said. "And over much of western Virginia these farm ponds are now mud flats, and some of them are dry."

That means that the topsoil and deep soil moisture is very low, he said, which could limit, or eliminate, the season when grazing pastures are green. "That's not good," he said. "I've been here 25 years, and I've never seen anything like that at this time of year."

At the other end of the region, the drought has affected the salinity levels in the lower Potomac River. There, scientists believe record high salinity may have aided a potentially toxic algae bloom that has halted the oyster harvest.

The normal salinity in the area is about 10 parts per thousand, or about a third that of sea water, which is 32 parts per thousand, said Robert Magnien, director of tidewater assessment with the state Department of Natural Resources.

The highest previous measurement was 16 parts per thousand, he said, and it's now running at 18 parts per thousand. It's still winter, though, Magnien said. Much in the rivers and bay remains dormant.

But as spring arrives many more things could change, he said, if the rains don't come.

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