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Winter Leaves Maine Parched

Drought: In fact, the entire Eastern Seaboard faces a potential disaster this summer because of paltry snowfall totals.


POLAND SPRINGS, Maine — With wells running dry and boats beached on the mud flats of low-water marinas, Maine is gripped by its worst drought in 107 years. To the weather-wise people of this rural state, the reason why is no secret: They were betrayed by the winter.

In normal times, old-timers say, Maine has nine months of winter and three months of lousy sledding. But this year, the heavy snows that melt to fill the state's wells, rivers and 6,000 lakes never fell. Portland, for instance, the largest city, had less than half its usual 64-inch snowfall.

"You see that truck over there?" Roger Knights asked last week, pointing to a red Dodge pickup equipped with a snowplow outside his home. "I bought it in the fall and figured I'd make some money plowing. Well, we didn't get but two or three snows, and none of them amounted to [much]. I didn't make a plug nickel."

Maine is one of the nation's most water-rich states, and it was widely assumed the drought that began last summer would become history once winter set in. Instead, the winter--mild and dry by local standards--worsened conditions, and the water table dropped steadily, from 17 feet below ground a year ago to 22 feet in February.

"I've never seen such a wimpy winter," mechanic Ted Gray said. "And I've never seen Lake Sebago when you could walk out over 100 yards of beach. Course, the lake was down some this time last year too, but the difference is then we had 4 feet of snow on the ground and now the ground is bare."

The precipitation that was due Maine--and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard--was delivered instead to the Mississippi Valley, steered southward by high pressure that lingered for months over the Atlantic coast. The weather pattern has left wide regions of the East with a potentially dangerous water shortage.

New Jersey Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco declared a water emergency in March. New York City's reservoir storage is at 59% of capacity. Washington, D.C.'s rainfall from September to February was 70% below normal. Nationwide, the National Weather Service says, this winter was the 14th driest and fifth warmest in 107 years of record-keeping.

Although Maine may ask for federal assistance, the drought at this point is no match for the long hot summer of 1988, when 35 states were bone-dry, cattle died, fires scorched the West and Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama prayed for rain. (It poured the next day.)

A National Weather Service meteorologist said a more normal weather pattern seems to be settling in this spring, but unless heavier-than-usual rainfall raises water supplies in the months ahead, officials say a disaster could be in the making.

In Maine's case, that would mean forest fires, water rationing, damage to potatoes and other agricultural crops, and a devastating hit to the state's tourist industry, its largest income-earner after pulp and paper. Tourism is an $8.8-billion business for New England's poorest state, raising $330 million a year in tax revenues and attracting 44 million visitors, many of whom are lured by Sebago and other lakes.

The town hall in Poland, adjoining Poland Springs and 25 miles northwest of Portland, was without water for five months. Allen Theriault spent the winter filling wells in Pigeon Hole from a 2,400-gallon tank on his truck. And until a 1,200-foot-deep well was dug at Northern Springs Mobile Home Park, Rita Cribbin needed two hours to wash her dishes under the trickle of water from her faucet.

Many residents have stocked up on bottled water--ironic because Poland Springs is home to some of the nation's most famous drinking water and the world's second-largest water-bottling plant. Once believed to have healing powers, Poland Springs water was first bottled in 1845 and sold in 3-gallon bottles that cost 15 cents. Now owned by Perrier, the company had sales exceeding $450 million last year.

But while Poland Springs' commercial water comes from a deep aquifer and is filtered through glacial sand and gravel, many of Maine's 1.3 million residents get their water from shallow dug wells. As a step toward requesting federal assistance, state officials are asking people with dry wells to contact the Maine Emergency Management Agency. About 600 have done so.

"It's been a struggle to get folks to notify us that they've got a problem," said Ann-Marie Brett, the agency's assistant director. "The Maine mentality and ethic is very much that of Yankee ingenuity and you don't bother someone else with your problem."

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