Thirty-six rainless days pour on the problems

Fires flare, wells dry up in state

[Drought envelope enlarges with GOM wells]



Richmond has apparently set a record for the longest run of rainless days in more than a century of official weather history.

"It's 36 days [as of yesterday] without measurable rainfall in Richmond," meteorologist Bill Sammler with the Wakefield Weather Forecast Office told the state's Drought Monitoring Task Force yesterday.

In addition, any place in Virginia typically will see at least some precipitation every three or four days, but the state's last decent rainfall was Sept. 24.

Statewide dryness underlined by Richmond's record rainless stretch is beginning to create more problems than humiliating suburban lawns and dust-covered cars, officials said.

Forest fires are flaring up, residential wells are running dry, groundwater levels and stream flows are falling, pastures and ponds are drying out, and farmers have stopped fall planting.

Forecasters didn't expect much, if any, rain from a cold front passing through the state last night and this morning.

In a situation that task force officials viewed with concern yesterday, groundwater levels have been dropping in the Old Dominion for several years.

"They're reaching very, very low levels," said hydrologist Don Hayes with the U.S. Geological Survey. "The headwaters of streams are drying up. That's why farm ponds are drying out."

According to the National Weather Service office at Wakefield, ground water wells in central Virginia show water levels at their lowest in 30 years.

Rivers, drinking water reservoirs and wells depend on rainwater to replenish groundwater, which saturates pores and cracks in soils and rocks.

So far, only Front Royal has instituted water restrictions. The town will ban watering vegetation and washing vehicles and buildings from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. starting today, said Town Manager Richard A. Anzolut.

The town takes its drinking water from the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, he said, and, "the river level has been dropping to fractions of its mean annual flow."

The state requires Front Royal to use stronger conservation measures as the river drops, with water rationing the next step.

Virginia's drinking-water situation is not critical yet, officials said.

"It's a rare year when home wells in some part of the state aren't suffering," said the Health Department's Gerald Peaks.

And, said the Department of Emergency Management's Fred Vincent, "We're not hauling water, we're not hauling hay like we were two years ago" during that drought.

Since Jan. 1, the Department of Forestry has seen 2,301 woodland fires, which have burned 18,530 acres, the agency said. In an average year, Virginia has about 1,300 fires.

Forestry didn't send a representative to the task force meeting here: They were too busy fighting fires.

Topsoil moisture and pastures are in critical condition, the Virginia Agricultural Statistics Service reported yesterday.

Many farmers are postponing planting small grains - oats, barley, rye, and wheat - until they get rain, the service said, noting that topsoil moisture is short on 99 percent of the state's farmland.

And 79 percent of Virginia's pasture land is in poor condition, the service said.

Farmers appear to have adequate feed for their livestock, however, said Roy Seward with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

October was the fourth-driest October in the state's 107-year record, according to the State Climatology Office in Charlottesville, and November has been virtually rainless.

Statewide precipitation for the last 12 months has been 83 percent of Virginia's long-term average, said Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, the state climatologist, making the period the ninth-driest in the state's 107-year record.

Much of Virginia is in a climatological drought, the Baltimore-Washington Weather Forecast Office said. A climatological drought occurs when precipitation during a six-month period is 15 percent or more below normal.