University Park, Pa. — If you thought trout streams were lower
than ever before on opening day, you were right. They were.
You have to go back to the early 1980s to find a March as dry as
the third month of 2006 – which was the fifth driest in
Pennsylvania since 1895, when such record keeping began. Another
was in 1969 and the other two were before 1920.
Largely because of March’s lack of rainfall, coming on the heels
of a mild, very dry winter, the state Department of Environmental
Protection in mid-April declared a drought watch that asks state
residents to cut back on (nonessential) water use by 5 percent.
Maybe no cause for alarm yet, but Bryan Swistock, Penn State
Cooperative Extension water resources specialist, worries that a
serious situation is developing.
“I don’t want folks to panic, but I don’t like the way this is
shaping up for our groundwater supplies,” he said. “A drought is
never a good situation to be in, but for us to be this dry, this
early in the year, is a very bad thing. We are nearing the end of
the groundwater recharge period, and streams and groundwater levels
in some areas of the state – particularly in the southeast – are
already very low.”
What concerns Swistock is that March and April generally are the
wettest months – the time of year when groundwater supplies should
be recharging. “In Pennsylvania, there aren’t great variations
between average precipitation from month to month,” he said. “But
typically in March and April, we get a lot of rain.
“Groundwater starting out the year so low could prove to be
disastrous later because usually the levels go down from here. As
soon as the trees start leafing out and taking up large amounts of
water – about now in Pennsylvania – it is very difficult to get
water into the ground.”
Because Swistock works in Penn State’s College of Agricultural
Sciences, he is very aware of farmers’ need for rain in the spring.
But for groundwater supplies, given how dry it has been in recent
months, normal amounts of rainfall won’t be enough.
“This is a bad time to start a drought because farmers are
trying to plant their crops and they must have adequate soil
moisture,” he said. “But if we are lucky and the showers are timed
right, we might get just enough moisture for crops to grow and
farmers will be pleased. But folks who depend on wells for drinking
water might still face a serious shortage in late summer.”
Although he is in the business of monitoring and anticipating
precipitation levels, Swistock readily concedes that long-term
weather forecasts are unreliable. “Beyond three months, I don’t pay
any attention to them,” he said. “But we don’t see any dramatic
weather patterns coming into the summer – we are just not getting
much moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. It looks like this drought
will get worse before it gets better.
“Looking at the long-term weather forecast by the National
Weather Service, Pennsylvania is sort of sandwiched between an area
to our south extending down to the Carolinas where a significant
drought is projected to develop, and an area to our north around
the Great Lakes that is projected to receive above-average amounts
of rainfall,” Swistock said.
“So I suppose we could go either way. But the way our year has
started doesn’t give me any confidence.”
Ironically, while much of the rest of the country dreads the
coming hurricane season that has been forecast to be worse than
normal, Pennsylvania by late summer may desperately need tropical
moisture. “If you look at our state’s history, most all the serious
droughts were broken by the remnants of hurricanes bringing
prolonged rains,” he said. “The year after Katrina, I hate to say
this, but Pennsylvania may be glad to see the remnants of
hurricanes this year if the current weather pattern continues.”
Although his experience monitoring precipitation in Pennsylvania
makes him pessimistic about groundwater supplies in a year such as
this, Swistock knows a lot can happen weather-wise before late
summer. “Seems like every time I talk about drought, it rains,” he
said. “But it will be tough for one or two storm events to overcome
this drought. We need to see a change in the weather pattern.”