Region Hit Hard By Continuing Drought A Lack Of Rain Has Withered Crops And Lowered Wells. No Relief Seems In Sight. An Emergency May Be Declared.

Posted: July 16, 1999

Farmers are watching helplessly as their corn and hay wither.

The prospect of wildfires worries managers at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where the meadows are so parched that even the sturdiest weeds are wilting.

And things are not any better at Lookaway Golf Club in Buckingham, Bucks County, where the once green fairways are as hard and dry as a basketball court.

Dry. Arid. Parched. Call it what you will. The region is so thirsty for rain that Gov. Ridge's drought task force yesterday urged him to declare an emergency by the end of the month and to impose mandatory restrictions on water use in much of the state.

"We need to take action to conserve while there's still something to save," Susan Rickens, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said yesterday.

The impact is being seen throughout the Philadelphia area and South Jersey.

Lawns are brown and crunchy. Pennsylvania's corn crop is so ravaged that farmers could lose $100 million this year. Streams and rivers have slowed to record lows. Groundwater-monitoring wells are significantly below average. Meanwhile, water use remains near an all-time high, with the Philadelphia Suburban Water Co. (PSW), the biggest suburban supplier, breaking records twice this month.

And little relief is in sight. The forecast for the next few days: Hot, with little or no rain.

Worse, forecasters at the Climate Prediction Center near Washington do not expect much in the way of rain through the early months of next year.

It hasn't been this dry since . . . well, last winter, when the DEP declared a drought warning for most of Pennsylvania. The Delaware River was so shallow that boats normally used for the Christmas re-enactment of Washington's crossing of the Delaware would not float.

FOLLOWS OTHER DROUGHTS

This year, it's worse, and it comes on top of four previous droughts in this decade: 1993, 1995, 1997 and last year.

At home in Camden County, Walt Nicholsberg has watched his blackberries and raspberries shrivel and dry until they looked like raisins. At work, his view is bleaker still. As a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, he tracks the drought.

Yesterday, he issued his latest report: The drought is getting worse.

Even with normal rainfall now, Nicholsberg said, the drought would continue to worsen because rainfall evaporates during the hot summer before it can soak deep enough into the ground to replenish the water reserves.

Already, two communities have declared drought emergencies and imposed restrictions on water use: Bucks County's Upper Makefield Township last week, and neighboring Buckingham Township yesterday.

With water supplies so low, some people are watering their lawns very early or very late, when less evaporates.

Among them is Tony Intartaglia. He gets up at 4 each morning to water his yard. It shows. His lush, 4,000-square-foot front lawn stands out from the cooked grass of neighboring yards in Newtown Township, Bucks County.

GRASS IS NOW BROWN

Karen Dixon of Deptford, Gloucester County, has not watered her lawn in three or four weeks. It shows, too. The grass has long since turned brown, as have two withered shrubs in her front yard.

"I'm so worried," she said. "It looks so bad."

Fear not, said Greg Magda, who owns Lawn Doctor of Bux-Mont.

"People need to know that even though their lawns are brown and crispy, they're not dead," he said. Magda said that such lawns are in a dormant stage, and that with rain, most will return to green.

The prospect is not so good for annuals. Many have been dealt fatal blows by the dry spell, said Bob Pannepacker of Penny's Flowers in Glenside, Montgomery County. "When you see your outdoor plant wilting, it's in severe shock," he said. He recommended watering hanging baskets as often as three times a day.

Lawns are not the only thing people are worried about. Tom Keyes, president of a water well company in Frazer, said the number of calls from people whose wells are having periods of low flow is increasing.

"Levels are down," Keyes said. "And it's not getting any better."

SELLING FOR LESS

South Jersey farmers, whose costs have risen because of round-the-clock irrigating, are being forced to sell fruits and vegetables at low prices to compete with produce from the South and New England.

And dairy farmers - who constitute Pennsylvania's largest industry and whose fields of feed corn and hay are too large to water - are watching their fields wither.

"There could be up to a $100 million loss" from low corn production, Greg Roth, a corn expert at Pennsylvania State University's College of Agriculture, said yesterday.

"Every day without rain means yield losses," said Lou Saporito, a Montgomery County agent for the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Even so, water levels in PSW's reservoirs are only slightly below normal - the result of the winter's heavy rains. That's also the case in North Jersey, and the reason that the Garden State has yet to declare a drought.

But the heat has caused another problem: an algae bloom in the Lower Crum Reservoir.

The bloom has caused taste and odor problems in water going to parts of Delaware County, said Donna Alston, spokeswoman for PSW.If there's one bright spot in all of this, Regina Nager of West Chester has found it.

"I get migraines when it rains," says Nager, whose lawn has turned brown. "And this is the first summer in the last three years that I've been headache-free."

* Contributing to this report were suburban staff writers Stephanie Doster, Kristen A. Graham, Evan Halper, Erika Hobbs, Lubna Khan and Kate Sullivan.

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