Recovering Water Levels

Recovering Water Levels

Rain helps some crops, delays some plantings.

Two weeks of rain were enough to green up pastures and recover water-supply stores, but not enough to end a drought watch in effect since February.

“We’re certainly better off with the recent rains,” said Louis Nichols, agriculture development officer for the Department of Economic Development. “The rains … have helped to bring up the ground-water levels in the county, and they’ll help a lot of the crops going into the winter, especially trees and landscape materials.”

The county received 5 inches of rain in October, compared to an average of 3.37 inches for the month. October’s rain increased the year-to-date rainfall to 30.43 inches, almost 5 inches below the annual average of 35.42 inches, as measured by the Dulles gauge.

The rainfall helped increase the combined storage of the Little Seneca and James-Randolph reservoirs — two back-up water resources for the Potomac River Basin — to 72 percent. The reservoirs dropped below 70 percent in early fall and are expected to fill before the next release season in July 2003.

THE NATIONAL OCEANIC and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) measures water supplies in the Potomac River Basin to designate an area’s drought level. For the county’s drought watch to be lifted, the Potomac River will need to be designated at D0, or abnormally dry, for 15 consecutive days. Currently, most of the Potomac River Basin is considered D1, or in the first stage of drought, and includes all of Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties and Washington, D.C., and most of Montgomery County. The NOAA’s measurement takes into account soil moisture and precipitation.

“It is very likely that we will move from the watch back into a normal stage in winter,” said Samantha Villegas, communications manager of the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority (LCSA), a wholesale water supplier to the incorporated areas of eastern Loudoun. The LCSA purchases water from the Fairfax County Water Authority, which gets its water from the Potomac River, and from the City of Fairfax, which uses water from the Goose Creek.

“That system has recovered with the recent rains,” Villegas said in reference to the Goose Creek. “The flows are within median range for this time of year. The flows are back to normal.”

THE RECENT RAINFALL helped restore pastures in the county. Pasture grasses entered into a drought dormancy and stopped growing in August, then began to grow again in September until the first frost on Oct. 31, said Gary Hornbaker, director and agriculture extension agent of the Loudoun Cooperative Extension. “We got some growth for animals to graze into the fall,” he said. “It certainly brought back the streams and creeks farmers use to water livestock.”

The rain was too wet for harvesting corn and soy beans, two plants that normally are harvested in October, and has slowed winter plantings, Hornbaker said. “This is holding up seeding of our fall crops, including wheat, barley and rye,” he said. “The time of year to plant wheat is now, [but] the ground is too wet.”

Winter wheat and rye are planted in the fall to protect the land from soil erosion. “You want something growing on the ground all the time,” Nichols said.

Summer crops received some of the needed rainfall this year, Hornbaker said. “We were very fortunate in Loudoun County. We received some showers at critical times when crops needed them,” he said. “We had a fairly good hay year. We had a very good corn and soybean crop. Fifty miles within any direction of the county, that’s not the case.”