Drought dries: but wells might too

Jerry Stenger can't pinpoint the day it ended, but using all the standard measures available in the state climatologist's office, he says the drought is over.

One clue is the nearly 39 inches of snow and sleet we've had so far this winter, compared to last winter's paltry 4.4 inches.

Another clue is that February's accumulation is four times the normal frozen precipitation for the month, making it the second snowiest February since record keeping started.

A third, unofficial, measure would be the number of cases of cabin fever sweeping the area, a sure sign of excess precipitation. That doesn't mean we're out of the dry woods.

"The real question is what the status of groundwater is," says Stenger. "The water table has been drawn on substantially the past four years with insignificant recharge during the winter."

Why is winter recharge so important? During late spring through early fall, evaporation and plant intake suck up six to eight inches more water than normal rainfall provides, Stenger explains.

And when you have successive winters of low precipitation, well, "We knew by last March we had a deficit," he says.

Larry Tropea, head of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, is extremely pleased with the weather lately. "I've been a cheerleader for bad weather," he says. And he reports that all reservoirs are "completely full."

However, Tropea doesn't believe the drought is over. "We're still continuing with depressed groundwater levels," he says. "It's hard to dig out of a three-year drought in one year."

Of course, knowing exactly what the groundwater levels are is problematic because Albemarle County doesn't have any groundwater monitoring wells. Nor, for that matter, does the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, according to Tropea.

Tropea came to Charlottesville from Pennsylvania, a state with "very deep and expensive" groundwater monitoring wells in every county. "That's something we need to invest in in Virginia," he says.

While this past December-February have had 138 percent of normal precipitation, Stenger resorts to humor when pressed for a prediction about the summer's rainfall: "It's very likely," he says, "some areas will receive above normal rainfall and some below."

For some of the 5,700 Virginians whose wells dried up between last August and January, that means the drought may not be over.

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