NY:Drought threatens crops:

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Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Drought threatens crops

Forecasts show more dry weather By Dan Shapley Poughkeepsie Journal

The rain this week won't save Thomas Hahn's oat crop, nor will it prevent the loss of the first hay harvest. ''It should be three feet high and thicker than dog hair. There's just nothing there,'' the Salt Point farmer said of his hay fields. ''The first cutting is basically already lost -- even if the rain comes for the next three days as we hope.''

Welcome rain, which will help out lawns and gardens and assist in replenishing ground and surface water supplies -- began falling in the mid-Hudson region Monday evening and continued through Tuesday.

But it's too little, too late for some crops. And weather forecasters say the summer may prove long and dry.

''As a farmer, it hurts the most right now because you plant and hope for a crop. Initially, it's not the money, it's the crop,'' Hahn said. ''In the spring you have great hope.''

But hope doesn't make the seeds sprout.

Many plants died Lee Ferris/Poughkeepsie Journal Despite the rain, Thomas Hahn, owner of the Hahn Farm in Pleasant Valley, will feel the effects of the drought long after the rains cease. Hahn farms about 600 acres with hay being the number one crop. Some of Hahn's fields remain unplanted and those that are show very little growth.

This spring, seeds lacked the moisture to germinate. And even those seedlings that did turn into plants lacked the moisture to survive. Many wilted and died.

But there's still a chance for strong fruit and corn crops, farmers said.

Before the rain began Monday, less than 0.2 of an inch of rain in May had fallen in the area. The last significant rainfall came April 13.

Poughkeepsie had received (1.11 + 0.3 recorded at 6 a.m. Tuesday) inches of rain by about 10 p.m., according to Ed Sommerfield, local weather observer for the National Weather Service.

In April, only 1.4 inches of rain fell -- about 2.7 inches short of average.

Brown lawns, stunted plants and unhappy farmers were among the symptoms of the dry spring.

Calls for water conservation were another.

Brush fires throughout the region still one more.

Rain this week could remedy some of the problem, but long-term forecasts predict a dry June and only average rainfall through the summer, meaning some drought conditions could persist.

''There will be some short-term relief. However, the longer-term hydrologic drought, the deep soil drought, is likely to continue through the summer,'' said Wayne Higgins, senior meteorologist for the U.S. Climate Prediction Center. ''It's really difficult to make up for the existing deficits -- even if you get normal rainfall, which is what we're predicting for the rest of the summer, you really can't make up for the deficit.''

The cause of the drought, meteorologically speaking, is difficult to pin down, Higgins said. Global weather patterns influenced by such things as El Nino or La Nina temperature shifts in the Pacific Ocean influence winter weather more than summer.

That leaves regional influences, which meteorologists are only beginning to study and understand, Higgins said.

''There's some truth to the idea that once you're in a drought, it tends to feed on itself,'' Higgins said.

''In a sense we're at August lows already, as far as stream levels are concerned,'' said Ed Hoxsie, executive director of the Dutchess County Soil and Water Conservation District. ''Stream levels are basically an indication of the groundwater, so we've got some real concerns going into this summer.''

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor report, released May 15, listed our area as ''abnormally dry,'' the mildest of five distinctions given. Most of New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania have been classified D1, the next level, which indicates a moderate drought, which the monitor describes as ''a moisture deficit bad enough to have social, environmental or economic effects.''

Florida, Montana and the Southeast coast are now experiencing more serious droughts.

Record-low stream levels had been recorded before the rains in parts of southeast New York this week, but it was too early to say whether the region's drought status would change -- for better or worse.

The next report will be released Thursday, according to Richard Heim, a meteorologist for the National Climatic Data Center, one of the partners that produces the Drought Monitor.

''You guys are having some very strong indicators that are showing dry conditions up there,'' he said.

Several communities, including the Village of Red Hook, the Town of Wappinger and the Harbourd Hills Water District in Hyde Park, have asked residents to conserve water in anticipation of a long, dry summer that could deplete water sources further -- which often affects water quality as well as quantity, according to Hoxsie.

Especially in places of high-density population that use individual wells and septic tanks, low water tables prevent sewage from being properly diluted. That facilitates contamination of drinking-water supplies.

Worse results possible

But things could be worse, considering there was almost no rain for more than a month. Michael Trimble, a member of the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council, said the melting of an unusually snowy winter and heavy March rainfall -- more than three inches above average, according to the Mohonk Weather Station -- have kept most groundwater levels adequate, if not at normal springtime levels.

''I don't think anybody's in really bad shape right now,'' said John Glass, supervising public health engineer for the Dutchess County Health Department.

If conditions warranted, the Department would request information about water supplies from the 230 community water systems and 420 smaller systems in Dutchess County.

Jay Paggi, the Town of Wappinger engineer who runs the water system, said increased water usage -- from people watering lawns and gardens -- affected levels more than the lack of rain.

''It depends on what kind of summer we have,'' Glass said. ''We had a fairly wet winter and everybody was in pretty good shape going into spring.''

Surface water systems, such as those in Beacon, Poughkeepsie, Hyde Park and Rhinebeck have not been affected, Glass said, and the salt front in the Hudson River has not migrated too far north.

Dave Fraleigh's orchards at Rose Hill Farm in Red Hook are surviving the drought because of his irrigation system, he said, though he may have to irrigate more aggressively as the season progresses.

Most established fruit and Christmas trees have weathered the drought without problems, though seedlings have either required watering or have suffered.

John Graziano, winemaker at Millbrook Vineyard, said newly planted vines need irrigation, but established vines are doing fine -- and that dry conditions often produce the best wine.

All that's small consolation to farmers such as Hahn, who is looking at his corn crop and wondering if it will produce. Warmer summer weather will speed growth and possibly lead to early maturity, leaving ears under-developed.

''With corn, if it tassels too soon and it doesn't have the right get up and go, it's just finished. It reaches the point where there is just no return on it,'' Hahn said. ''Not that a great rain isn't going to help us.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 23, 2001

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