Drought ravages Prince William farms

No matter where you live in the county, summer has been a scorcher. And while it may not be the hottest summer on record, the National Weather Service reports much of the area is suffering through a drought.

Procedures to have the county declared a drought disaster area have already begun, according to Susan DeBolt, an environmental horticulture agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension. About 17,500 acres of county farmland have been adversely affected by the drought, she said. Total estimated losses are about $900,000 in crops which include corn, soybeans and hay.

“There are very many cumulative effects of a drought,” she said. “I contacted a sod farm and they said the dry summer has been compounded by a dry fall and winter. For landscapes, this drought is going to be devastating. We’ll see the repercussions for months and years to come. Next year, I’ll hear about trees dying, and it will be because of the effects of the past years of drought.”

Gov. Mark R. Warner said Wednesday he might order statewide mandatory water restrictions as Northern Virginia endures its fourth year of drought. As ground water levels decrease, towns and cities across the state have imposed water restrictions or urged residents to conserve water.

DeBolt said the real problem farmers face with a drought is the lack of crop yield. “A lot of crops are dying and a lot are stunted so you can’t get the yield you want,” she said. “We really need rain … And with our water supply, even people with wells can’t water their lawns at will.”

If the county is declared a drought disaster area, DeBolt said farmers could qualify for low-cost loans. She encouraged those with questions to call the county horticulture help line at (703) 792-7747.

Rainfall amounts in July at local airports measured below average according to the NWS in Sterling. Rainfall at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was measured at 2.2 inches, about 1.46 inches below normal. At Washington-Dulles International Airport, July rainfall totals were 2.65 inches, or .92 inches below average.

“There is a drought for much of the area,” NWS meteorologist Dewey Walston said. “We need between six to 12 inches of rain above normal for the next month to end it. For the last 22 months, 17 have registered below-normal rainfall, so a drought is a gradual thing. The only thing that could end it quick is getting the remains of a hurricane and all the rain.”

According to the National Arborist Association, home owners affected by the drought should:

water trees deeply with soaker hoses or an irrigation system;

place two to three inches of mulch around the tree’s base. Don’t let the mulch touch the tree trunk;

and contact an NAA arborist to assess the state of the trees and landscape. The Web site is www.natlarb.com.

With drought usually comes heat, and according to Walston, Friday was the 35th day of the year where temperatures reached 90 degrees or higher — not quite a record. The record is 67 days set in 1980.

The normal daily high temperatures are decreasing, Dewey says, but residents can finally expect the 90-degree temperatures to break in mid-September. “The sun’s angle is getting lower, and by September it gets hard for it to warm things up to 90 degrees,” he said. “During the summer months, big high pressure areas around the East Coast block weather systems from getting in here and cooling things off.”


The number of residents trying to beat the heat are also on the rise this summer. Public relations manager Beth Robertson of the Prince William County Park Authority said through July there has been a 30 percent increase in attendance at the Park Authority’s five outdoor pools and two waterparks.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of people in the water. At Splashdown Waterpark, we’ve averaged between 1,500-1,800 people a day,” she said.

Leesylvania State Park manager James Klakowicz reports park attendance has dramatically increased this year. With both area residents and tourists hankering to cool off, he says, there’s about 400 daily boat launches.

Of course with the heat comes booming air conditioning businesses. Nancy Dempsey, office manager of Brennan’s Heating & Air Conditioning Service Inc. in Woodbridge, said they’ve been busier over a longer period of time this year.

“We’ve been busy since April because of the heat. The normal cooling season runs from mid-May to mid-July, but a lot of people got a head start in April,” she said.

“When it comes to air conditioning, people want it now. They will wait a day or two if they don’t have heat.”

Staff writer Christian Czerwinski can be reached at (703) 878-8074.

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