U.S.: overview of drought (USA Today)

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Headline: Drought sears another summer

Source: USA TODAY, 5 July 2001 URL: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nlead.htm

[My comment: beyond the fact of the drought itself, three things in this piece struck me: One, the social impact -- divorces, etc; Two, the reference to the dust bowl of the 1930s (although it's not that bad yet, the reporter felt the need to mention it); and Three, the comment comparing low water tables to an economic debt. ]

Another parched summer in a string of drought years is frustrating farmers, fly-fishers and lawn lovers across broad expanses of the USA. Hawaii and West Texas are gasping through their fourth straight year of lower-than-normal rainfall. Chronically low groundwater levels persist in Florida despite recent rains. The usually soaked Pacific Northwest is suffering some of the worst problems.

Hardest hit: the Klamath River basin of Northern California and southern Oregon. To save endangered suckerfish and coho salmon, the federal government in April cut off Upper Klamath Lake irrigation supplies to 1,500 family farmers for the first time in the 96-year history of the dam-and-canal project there. Nearly 200,000 acres that usually grow alfalfa, onions, horseradish, mint and potatoes are idle. Ranchers are selling off sheep and cattle breeding stocks.

Social fallout is "absolutely devastating," says Tessa Stuedli, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. She says the drought has triggered bankruptcies and divorces among farmers. "A person doesn't feel good about himself when he is considered less important than a fish," she says.

The Northwest relies on hydroelectric energy for 70% of its power. Rivers are trickling after a winter of scanty snow. "We're running on the ragged edge of being able to meet power supply needs," Bonneville Power Administration spokesman Ed Mosey says. The BPA talked aluminum makers into closing energy-gulping plants on the Columbia River, which is at only 52% of normal flow. There's little energy left over for export to blackout-prone California.

Young chinook salmon swimming to the Pacific will have to brave the turbines of Columbia hydroelectric dams instead of being "spilled" over the top; the BPA can't afford to release the water.

If avid fly-fishers head for a favorite Wyoming or Montana vacation spot, they may find that a river doesn't run through it. Montana's Big Hole River, for example, is flowing 95% below normal. Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs says officials are "carefully monitoring" trout streams, ready to ban angling — a mainstay of small-town economies.

The Northwest drought is "something of a mystery and may be a one-year blip," Agriculture Department meteorologist Brad Rippey says. Regionally, this summer is shaping up as the second driest (after 1977) in 72 years of Northwest record-keeping.

From New Mexico east to North Carolina and Florida, blame bone-dry conditions on La Niña, Rippey says. The cyclical phenomenon of unusually cold eastern Pacific Ocean water — the opposite of El Niño, which often produces flooding in the USA — is fading after three years. In Hawaii, "the only cause people are looking at right now is global warming," says Chester Lao of the Honolulu water supply board.

Nationally, last summer was much more arid than summer 2001 promises to be. The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map released last Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed extreme or severe drought in 15% of the country. Last August, drought covered 36% of the country. Not even 2000 can compare to the "Dust Bowl" year 1934, when 62% of the country was gripped by drought.

Last year's drought and heat wave caused $4 billion in crop damage and 140 deaths in south-central and southeastern states. The summer drought of 1998 was even worse. It resulted in up to $9 billion in damage and 200 deaths from Texas to the Carolinas.

Agriculture is bearing the brunt again this year. Montana farmers "already have written off" most of the wheat they planted last winter, state drought coordinator Jesse Aber says. Texas cotton is withering. In Washington state, 75,000 acres of apple, pear and cherry orchards aren't bearing fruit.

The Florida rainy season started on schedule last month, prodding dehydrated alligators out of backyards and back to the marshes. "The golf greens are green and the forest fires are out," Florida state climatologist James O'Brien says. But homeowners in the Tampa Bay area remain under restrictions imposed in May 2000. Outdoor watering is allowed one day a week, before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Underground aquifers need replenishment, "like a family that loses its income and goes deeply into debt," explains Michael Molligan of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Meanwhile, in Klamath Falls, Ore., soccer fields are a drab brown. County Commissioner John Elliott asks outsiders to call 1-866-DROUGHT to donate livestock feed.

The future in the Klamath River basin may be less bleak than residents fear. The Bush administration and Senate leaders are supporting a bill to give farmers $20 million in emergency aid. Interior Secretary Gale Norton says department biologists will review the fish-before-people decree.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), July 05, 2001


Drought map

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 05, 2001.

Thanks for the map, Martin. Its a big help to get a visual.

-- John Littmann (johntl!@mtn.org), July 05, 2001.

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