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County Flirts With Drought Disaster

Raspberries like lots of water. Blackberries can thrive in a dry spell. But people who like to pick their own berries wither when the temperature creeps much into the 90s.

Ben Allnut of Homestead Farm says that the heat of this summer impacts the number of customers who come to Homestead.

"People just aren't as eager to come out" on exceedingly hot days, said Allnutt. "92 [degrees] is about the fall-off point for the pick-your-own people."

A severe drought and emergency restrictions on water use have persisted in parts of Montgomery County through the summer, and the county may be on its way to being declared part of a federal drought disaster area.

In a unanimous vote, the U.S. Department of Agriculture State Emergency Board voted to recommend that 21 Maryland counties, including Montgomery County, be declared a federal drought disaster area.

EMERGENCY-LEVEL RESPONSE by state and federal government officials does not necessarily mean area farms or garden centers are in dire straits.

"We're kind of used to it; we've learned to live with it," said Allnutt, who owns Homestead Farm in Poolesville with his wife Maureen Allnutt. "Of the last six years, four or five have been really dry."

Dry weather also encourages some gardeners to look for more tolerant plants.

"It hasn't hurt our business at all. People are still planting," said Jennine Thomas, assistant manager at Good Earth Garden Center. "If people are interested in plants, they continue to water."

THOUGH ENDURING THE DROUGHT, Thomas and Allnutt say that the dry, hot summer has spelled changes from business as usual.

"Some people were concerned about it, especially with it being so hot," said Thomas, who said indigenous plants such as sedum and Black-Eyed Susans, Maryland’s state flower, are better able to weather the drought.

"Sedums are very good to plant because they don't need very much water."

While Homestead Farm is braced for a dry summer, some crops suffer more than others.

"Raspberries have really had a hard time; they're prolific users of water," said Allnutt, who said blackberries are native to dry areas and fare better. "Blackberries are a Texas crop … They're a big hit this year."

The heat and dry spell were not a surprise given weather patterns in previous summers, according to Said Kasraei, water supply program administrator for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "After the drought of '99, there was a governor's task force appointed," said Kasraei. "The department has been monitoring those indicators … so it wasn't something that caught us off-guard."

Potomac residents get their water from Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission or from wells, but areas of Montgomery County not served by WSSC or the City of Rockville are subject to mandatory water use restrictions, which include restrictions on watering of grass, use of sprinklers and washing paved surfaces.

Southern Maryland, a region including Montgomery County, is in emergency status for precipitation indicators, the only state quadrant at this level. Since Sept. 1, 2001, Southern Maryland has received only 60 percent of the normal precipitation for the region. The precipitation indicators are one factor considered in the region's overall drought status, and Southern Maryland is currently in "drought watch" status, two notches below the "emergency status" of Central Maryland.