Midwest: another drought closer to home

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Might be a good idea to hang on to those prep foods.


Drought Grips the Corn Belt By BECKY BOHRER, Associated Press Writer

WINTERSET, Iowa (AP) -- Each day, Jody Milligan decides which is most important: taking a shower, doing the laundry or watering her two horses. Her well is drying up.

The same thing is happening to Russell Faux's well. The 71-year-old farmer drives 11 miles to Winterset every week or two for 325 gallons of water so he and his wife can bathe, cook and water the cattle.

''It was bad last year,'' Milligan said, ''but this year it's ridiculous.''

Drought is choking the Midwest -- particularly the Corn Belt. A severe drought zone extends from Nebraska and Iowa across parts of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana and into Ohio. Since last July, rainfall in the severe drought zone has been six to nine inches below normal.

''You see things greening on the surface, but it's a ticking time bomb below the surface,'' said Michael Palecki, a climatologist with the Midwestern Regional Climate Center in Champaign, Ill.

While there is enough moisture now at the surface for crops to sprout, the soil is dry a foot or two down. And long-range forecasts suggest it will be drier and warmer than normal through much of the region from May through July, a critical part of the growing season.

Little of the nation's corn crop is planted right now, and things could still turn around. But a continued dry spell could mean higher prices for corn and soybeans and financial ruin for farmers.

John Dittrich, who irrigates two-thirds of his corn and soybeans near Tilden, Neb., is worried about the odds.

''It makes Las Vegas look stable,'' he said.

Already, creeks in cow pastures are drying up. Shorelines and tree roots are exposed as rivers recede.

Both Milligan and Faux have shallow wells -- which are less than 100 feet and rely on soil moisture rather than deep underground water sources -- but they never ran into problems until last summer.

Nowadays, Milligan and her husband, Steve, often shower at her pet grooming business in Adel, 30 miles from home, to conserve water. If they water horses one day, they put off washing dishes or doing a load of laundry until the next day.

In Iowa, the precipitation total from Sept. 1, 1999, to April 1, 2000, was the fourth-lowest since 1873. Other states in the Corn Belt are seeing pretty much the same thing.

The dry spell has been compounded by unusually warm weather, which has sucked moisture from the soil. Temperatures in Iowa over the past nine months have shown the biggest shift in 105 years from what is considered normal.

Large portions of Texas, Florida and Georgia are also going through a severe drought.

Some environmentalists blame global warming. Climatologists cite La Nina, a cooling of the eastern Pacific Ocean around the equator. La Nina tends to bring dry, hot summers to the Midwest.

In fact, the last severe drought in the Midwest, in 1988-89, also occurred during a La Nina. The dry spell was one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, with an estimated $54 billion in crop losses and other damage.

This La Nina, however, has continued for an unusual two years.

''You'd have to go back decades to find one that's lasted this long,'' said Douglas Le Comte, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 26, 2000


Drought grips US Midwest farms

By JULIAN BORGER WASHINGTON Saturday 29 April 2000

The US agricultural heartland is in the grip of one of the worst droughts on record, as streams, rivers and lakes evaporate in the deep south and the Midwest.

For the first time, the national weather service issued a federal drought warning in spring as the problems caused by last year's rainfall deficit were deepened by a dry winter.

Meteorologists warned that it could be the most arid period since the 1988-89 drought that caused losses of $US5billion ($A92billion) and is now considered the worst natural disaster in US history.

The worst-hit areas are southern Texas and south-western Louisiana. The drought extends over the main grain-producing states of the Midwest: Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Michigan and Indiana. Most of these states have had 15 to 30 centimetres less rain than normal since last summer.

"An unusual aspect is that this drought covers a very wide area of the Midwest," said Michael Palecki, a climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Centre in Illinois.

The US Secretary of Commerce, William Daley, said: "Our data indicates drought conditions are probably going to get worse before they get better."

The drought is being blamed on the La Nina phenomenon that has been distorting weather patterns across North America.

Thunderstorms last week moistened the topsoil in the Midwest but any hope could prove illusory, said Douglas LeComte, a climate expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The storms have given the farmers some respite," he said. "But when you dig below the surface there's very little moisture at all," he said.

"The outlook is not too rosy for the next few months from May to July. That's why we're so worried."

The summer is expected to be dry and hot, which could bankrupt many farms. A University of Missouri study found that 17 per cent of the state's farmers were struggling because of the 1999 drought, and another 32 per cent risk bankruptcy if the dry spell continues for a few more months.

The potential economic damage is not restricted to arable farming. In Texas and the Midwest, streams and waterholes are disappearing, threatening livestock. The unusual conditions have also triggered forest fires, especially in southern Missouri.

Doug Halliwell, a firefighting supervisor in the state's conservation department, said: "I've had at least 50,000 acres of timber burn since March 1. That's a conservative estimate."



-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 28, 2000.

Greenhouse effect leads to disasters By TIM RADFORD LONDON Saturday 29 April 2000

Floods are events of the moment. Droughts are disasters on a slow fuse. Both happen with or without global warming.

But the drought and famine in Ethiopia, the desiccation of Rajasthan, the arid corn land of the United States west, and the towns in Mozambique and Venezuela swept by storms and floods are beginning to look like pieces in the same ominous jigsaw.

"You can't ever say that a hurricane or a flood or a drought is because of global warming," said one disaster expert. "What you can say is that global warming makes any of these or all of them more likely."

One of the first predicted results of the greenhouse effect was that a warmer world would be accompanied by a greater frequency of "extreme" events. This is because more heat should mean more evaporation and more wind energy, and therefore more violence.

So far events have matched predictions with an eerie precision. Islands usually hit by a cyclone once in a century have been pounded four times in a decade. Rivers that used to dry up once every few decades are now failing to reach the sea on 100 or more days a year. Seven of the hottest years ever recorded were in the 1990s and the three next hottest were in the 1980s - and during the past decade the cost of natural disasters added up to four times the bill of the 1980s.

The hottest year of the decade was 1998. It was also, according to the reinsurance giant Munich Re, one of the most expensive, with a total of 80 separate natural catastrophes attributed to the influence of El Nino, a cyclic blister of heat in the Pacific that periodically tips climate patterns upside down, sparking fires in tropical rainforests and floods on barren lands.

That year was marked by terrible floods in China, calamitous ice storms in the US, and a huge pall of smoke and flames over Indonesia. It also saw some of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit central America, demolishing hillsides and sweeping away villages and crop land.

And Red Cross experts pointed out that the following year, 1999 - the fifth-hottest recorded for the planet - was almost as bad, with floods and wind storms battering communities that were only just beginning to recover from the last wave.

Storms are reported by governments and the news media as single and separate events, but they are not. When winds die down and floodwater ebb, life does not return to normal. Victims will have lost their homes, their livestock and their savings, and they will face malnutrition and water-borne diseases.

And a year or two later, when the land is green again, they could also face plagues of locusts. For most of the time, locusts dwell in little groups in arid regions. But every few years, after rain has multiplied the vegetation, they suddenly swarm.

Scientists working together have helped limit locust plagues around the Mediterranean, and meteorologists warn governments and each other about wind storms and floods, but drought is another matter.



-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 28, 2000.

May 7, 2000 Drought parches Georgia Charles Seabrook - Staff Sunday, May 7, 2000

Drought conditions as severe as those in 1986 and 1988 --- Georgia's worst dry spells on record --- could be shaping up now for the state and metro Atlanta.

"We're facing a serious problem," says Roy Fowler, head of the Cobb- Marietta Water Authority, which runs the state's second-biggest water system. Farmers in southwest Georgia, the state's most productive agricultural region, started irrigating in early April --- about a month earlier than usual --- because the ground is so dry.

Since May 1998 metro Atlanta is 20 inches short of rain --- about a fourth down from the 38 to 40 inches of rainfall that water the area in a normal year. Rainfall is down 7 inches so far this year alone.

Streams that feed Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona are running at an average of 50 percent normal so far this year.

Although lake levels are higher, "the near-full lake levels belie the drought conditions," Fowler says. That's because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has cut power generation by as much as 75 percent at the reservoirs in order to hold more water behind the dams for human consumption and to meet basic water needs downstream.

The National Weather Service drought forecast issued this past week affirms its earlier predictions: "severe" drought conditions for Georgia and several other Southeastern states through the end of June, likely persisting through the summer. Georgia's plight reflects the situation nationwide, with moderate to severe drought in several areas. Much drought in several areas. Much of the country's midsection and a broad swath of its southern tier from Arizona to Florida --- about half the territory of the contiguous 48 states --- has been dry since last July and is getting drier. Around the Great Lakes, the water levels and rivers are approaching all-time lows. Lakes Michigan and Huron haven't been as low since 1965.

The National Weather Service blames the lack of rain and abnormally warmer temperatures on La Nina, a weather pattern that causes a cooling of the waters in the Pacific. La Nina tends to bring drier- than-normal conditions to the Southeast and much of the rest of the nation. And the weather service is predicting that La Nina will linger through late August, when Pacific Ocean temperatures slowly begin to return to normal.

Faced with the prospects of another hot, dry summer, metro Atlanta utilities have agreed on a new plan to initiate outdoor watering restrictions if there is no relief. Those restrictions could include limiting watering to just a few hours a day to a total ban on outdoor watering.

For now, local officials are encouraging homeowners and businesses to voluntarily reduce outdoor water use and practice water conservation.

"If we start using those conservation methods now, we can possibly avoid more severe watering restrictions as we move into the summer months," Fowler says.

Other signs of the extreme dryness abound. Last Monday, daily record- low flows were recorded in the Chattahoochee River near Whitesburg in Coweta County, in the Ocmulgee at Macon and in the Flint River at Newton in South Georgia.

In the Piedmont and Coastal Plain sections of the state, well drillers and homeowners report declining groundwater levels in many areas. "We've seen pretty low water levels in our monitoring wells in South Georgia," says William McLemore, head of the Georgia Geologic Survey. "It's a rather gloomy picture."

In Mitchell County in southwest Georgia, farmer Murray Campbell, who plants 1,200 acres of corn, cotton and peanuts each year, says his dry fields are "almost like being in the desert." To the west of Mitchell County, Calhoun County extension agent Paul Wigley says farmers are having to irrigate much earlier than usual, the cost of which will add an additional burden to growers already facing low crop prices.

"The subsoil, which goes down several feet, is now like an extremely dry sponge because of the lack of rain," Wigley says. "When we have a rain, that dry subsoil just quickly wicks up the moisture from (the topsoil). Thus, there is little soil moisture to support plant growth."

The dryness also has been blamed for thousands of wildfires that have flared up in the state. So far this year, 4,861 wildfires have damaged 35,168 acres in Georgia, about 16,000 acres more than the five-year average.

"That figure shows what the drought does to you," says Alan Dozier, chief of forest protection for the Georgia Forestry Commission. "I believe we're in for a long, hard summer."

During a normal year, Lanier's Buford Dam generators churn out electricity four to eight hours a day. But during the drought the generators have been running for one to two hours a day --- only when water must be released to meet essential water quality needs downstream.

"Power generation is a major purpose of Buford Dam, but for more than a year power generation has been incidental only to releases for water quality," says Jim Lloyd of the Elberton-based Southern Power Administration, which sells the electricity produced by the reservoirs.

The Corps of Engineers says that if the inflows into the reservoirs don't increase substantially --- and they probably won't within the next two months --- lake levels may decline considerably because there will be little water coming in to make up for the water that is withdrawn for drinking or released for water quality needs, such as dilution of treated sewage.

Georgia's worst drought on record occurred in the 1980s, with the dry spells of 1986 and 1988 the most severe. In 1986, scores of Georgia counties were declared agricultural disaster areas. Across the South, crops worth more than $1 billion were wiped out in the heat wave. Metro Atlantans faced outdoor watering bans, with hefty fines for violations. The Alabama National Guard was mustered to truck water into cities that faced severe water shortages.

The drought of 1988 --- a La Nina year --- was even more intense and widespread. Nationwide, it was second only to the major droughts of the 1950s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Hundreds of counties in the South and the Great Plains were declared agricultural disaster areas. Barges on the Mississippi River ran aground because of low water. Navigation on the lower Chattahoochee River in Georgia was temporarily suspended.

Now, with hot, dry weather coming, this summer could be shaping up to be just as bad as '86 and '88, water experts say. In metro Atlanta, this past February was the driest February in 22 years. About the only major relief could be from tropical storms or a hurricane.

But storms can wreak as much havoc --- flooding and washed-out crops - -- as droughts, says state climatologist David Stooksbury, a professor of engineering at the University of Georgia.

"You don't want a flood as the solution to your drought," he says.

That's what happened in 1994, when Hurricane Alberto dumped 24 inches of rain on the state in 24 hours, causing massive flooding in Macon, Albany and several other cities, and billions of dollars in damage.

It was the worst natural disaster in Georgia history, and it came when most of the state was in a dry spell.

Although droughts may not be as dramatic and frightening as floods and hurricanes, the prolonged dryness can cause more economic damage, Stooksbury says. Droughts are more subtle, tending to sneak up on you and commanding little awe until they reach the most severe stage.

That is what farmers are facing in much of the nation. If dry conditions persist, the Midwest faces its worst drought in two decades, climate experts say.

Because droughts can bring on tumultuous social, economic and ecological disasters, scientists around the nation are turning to the past to better understand them. For instance, recent analyses of tree- ring data have identified a 16th-century megadrought that affected much of the continent for years, far outstripping any drought of the 20th century in persistence and severity. Experts now believe that a megadrought may have killed off the first English colony in America, at Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

http://www.accessatlanta.com/partners/ajc/epaper/editions/today/news_9 3417f24249d41b800f3.html

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 07, 2000.

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