Stories by Stephanie Johns
lack of rain • low soil moisture • crops dependent on irrigation • conditions for wildfire good • dry conditions persist
Dry Gone Awry
The Morgan County area is considered to be in “exceptional drought” stemming from several years of poor rainfall, according to Keith Fielder, an agricultural extension agent in Putnam County.
Even though we have left summer behind and entered into fall, nothing has changed as far as the drought, he said.
“Dry conditions are dry conditions,” he said. “It’s a year-round deal.”
He said people may be most affected by the drought in summer because of the high temperatures but the soil moisture is still “very low” right now.
Timely rainfall in August and September was nice, but without sustained rainfall there is no real change, he said.
“Basically we’re right back where we were,” he said.
He noted that areas south of here have benefited from the rainfall brought by tropical storms. Lack of adequate rain in this area has affected hay production.
“The first warm season grass hay cutting this year was in September,” he said. “It’s usually in June. That’s totally unusual.”
Not only has lack of rain stunted the amount of hay produced, it also has impacted the quality.
“The quality of it has lowered,” he said. “And the amount harvested is way down. So we’re short on hay.”
Fielder said that late season rainfall has helped local soybean and cotton crops but that irrigation has played a vital role.
“If it wasn’t for irrigation, down here we wouldn’t have had a corn crop,” he said. Irrigation has been supplied from surface water and low-capacity wells that are pumped into a pond as a holding source. “If they didn’t have a permanent water source they’re kind of out of luck.”
The water table is down and Fielder has received reports of bore wells drying up and some farm ponds are bone dry.
“The water level is so low that the fish baked as the temperature of the water got too high,” he said. “The situation is critical.”
He added that the recent rainfall and breaks in temperature have been beneficial but that the impact of the drought will continue to be felt.
“We’re still in a hole on feed stocks because there’s been low to no hay production,” he said.
Lower than average hay production isn’t the only thing local residents have to worry about: less rainfall means a drier environment, which makes conditions for wildfires ideal.
According to Gwen Ruark, Morgan County Emergency Management Agency Director, the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, approved in July of this year, addresses droughts and wildfires.
“It takes into account every type of disaster Morgan County has had in the past or may have in the future,” she said.
She noted that the drought has been steady for the past three years and that as dry as it is now, conditions for a wildfire are good.
Ruark said she looks for ways to educate the public as to how they might prevent wildfires from occurring.
“If you’re planting, don’t plant right up against the house,” she said. “Rake away leaves from your house and clear off dead shrubs.”
Doing these things may prevent wildfires from starting as well as making things a bit easier on firefighters if a wildfire breaks out and people are trapped in their homes.
“If the doors are on fire, firefighters have got to fight the bushes to get to you,” she said. “And you’ve got to be able to exit your house. If you’re burning leaves, if they hit the bushes, they’ll go up and if those bushes are right next to the house …”
Low humidity means extremely high risk of wildfires, she said, adding that rainfall with lightning could start a fire.
Ruark said she doesn’t look for the drought to improve anytime soon, “We’ll be in a drought for a little bit.”
Streams in Morgan County seem to be holding their own for now, she said, “It depends on where in the county you’re talking about. The lower end of the county got more than the upper end.”
She said that crops haven’t done as well as they have in the past and that the economic impact of the drought is “far reaching.”
“Beef prices and poultry prices are going up,” she said. “It’s impacting everything from businesses to grocery stores. You can really feel the trickledown effect.”
Local farmers have felt the impact from the drought to varying degrees. Several farmers in Morgan County, though, seem to have come through it okay.
Jim Markley said that they have been “very fortunate” out at CJ Orchards, “We’ve had enough water and have been able to get through it.”
He said that while they did not have hay for a long time this year their growing season was on the front end of the drought and their crops have been good.
“We’ve got no complaints,” he said.
They use drip irrigation out of a pond so that the water goes right where they want it so there is not water wasted as might happen if they were to use a pivot to water their crops.
“I wouldn’t try growing without irrigation,” he said. “This system has sustained me for years, providing adequate water for years.”
Russ Green of Greendale Farm said that their livestock operation of beef, pork, and lamb benefitted from the rain that did come this past year.
“It was a reasonable rain – not great but in time to give continued forage,” he said. “It’s not a disaster but it’s been tough.”
Mary Elizabeth Shoptaw of Tagyerit Farm said that this year has not been as hard on them and their livestock as last year when they had to run sprinklers to have grass for their animals.
Wes Holt, owner of Sunflower Farm and manager of Hundred Acre Farm, said that the extreme heat more than the drought impacted them this year.
“It definitely slowed down the growth of the sunflowers,” he said, adding that the 100-plus degree temperatures in June hit on the day of the Sunflower Festival. “We only had about half the number of people show up this year.”
Holt said that the drought hasn’t affected Sunflower or Hundred Acre farms as much as it has in years past, “We’ve been blessed.”
Tate Tweksbury of Tweksbury Farms where they grow organic vegetables said that he has been able to pump out of a small river to water his crops but that this year’s drought has not been as bad as previous ones.
“The river’s not as low as in the past, even last year or the year before,” he said, noting that he uses mulch and hay to keep moisture in around the plants on his small farm so that he does not have to water as much.
When it comes to conserving and protecting water, Bostwick Water Superintendent Mark Batchelor said that the city follows Environmental Protection Division (EPD) guidelines and encourages homeowners to be careful of the water supply.
Buckhead City Clerk Cheryl Saffold said they send out suggested water conservation tips as part of their yearly ‘Water Confidence Report,’ which was mailed to customers the last week of October.
Conservation tips provided in the report include the following:
Take shorter showers.
Shut off water while brushing teeth.
Use a water-efficient showerhead.
Run clothes washer and dishwasher only when full.
Water plants only when necessary.
Fix leaky toilets and faucets.
Adjust sprinklers so only lawn is watered.
Water protection tips taken from You’re the Solution to Water Pollution by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources include the following:
Limit fertilizer and pesticide use.
Cover exposed soil with straw or plants and cover your garden in winter.
Compost yard trimmings; don’t put them in a stream.
Contain vehicle leaks and spills.
Restrict pets from streamside areas.
Never pour household products on the ground or down a stream drain.
Madison City Manager David Nunn said that the city has taken certain steps to conserve water from the type of pluming it uses to the type of landscaping it plants.
There are waterless urinals in Town Park and self-sufficient landscaping throughout the city that requires water to get the plant off to a good start but then limited amounts to keep it going.
“We try to do things that require concentrated amounts of water,” he said.
The city also reminds its residents that when they conserve water, they save money. The wireless water meter read system the city is trying out will allow the city to notify those residents of leaks within one to two days. The city then can ask the customer to check for a leak or the city can go out and do it.
“Once it leaks, it’s gone and requires more,” he said.
Rutledge City Clerk Debbie Rutherford said they always adhere to drought restrictions such as odd/even watering days.
Morgan County has suffered from an “exceptional drought” for the past several years. Less rainfall and a larger population requiring more water have contributed to the situation.
Todd Rasmussen, Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Georgia, shared details about the water cycle.
“Most people assume this is fairly simple but in actuality it’s pretty complicated,” he said.
The visible part of the water cycle begins with rain. When it rains, some of the water runs off and some infiltrates the soil. An impervious surface like asphalt or concrete is unable to absorb moisture so that water collects and heads to sewers, streams, and rivers.
While agricultural and forest lands absorb water, there is a certain amount of water that soil can absorb. Once that soil is saturated, the water in these areas collects in lakes and rivers.
The part of the water cycle that we cannot see takes place below the surface: water drains down to the water table, which fills from the bottom up.
Rasmussen suggested that one think of the water table as though it were a glass with ice cubes in it. When one adds water, the water finds its way around the ice cubes and begins collecting in the bottom of the glass.
When it rains and water seeps below the earth’s surface, that water makes its way through the hard rock geology beneath us and percolates down until it hits rock bottom. In this manner a well fills from the bottom up.
The well then is like a straw inserted into that glass of ice water: water is drawn down through the ground before going up the well and out the spigot.
Water below the surface drains to streams. This keeps streams flowing even during a drought.
Rasmussen said that places like Jacksonville, Florida have pulled from their water sources so hard that the river there dries out. There are even places in the western U.S. and in southern Europe / northern Africa where the deserts are growing.
Asked about causes of the prolonged drought in Georgia, Rasmussen said it is due to both less water and more pumping of water, which has happened because the population is growing.
He said that we went into last winter so dry that when it did rain the water could not sink into the water table. This meant that there was no recovery of the water in the wells.
“If we have another dry winter, we’ll be in tough shape next year,” he said.
While a winter weather prediction is not available, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center offers a three-month precipitation outlook at http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/ that indicates we will have “above average” rainfall between Oct. 18 and Dec. 18. The first day of winter is Dec. 21.
David Stooksbury, an atmospheric scientist at UGA, shared details about winter weather patterns as well as a winter weather outlook.
He said that there are three major ocean atmospheres that impact Georgia’s winter: El Nino, La Nina, and neutral. Of these three, the first two claim 25 percent of winters each while the last claims the remaining 50 percent of winters.
Under El Nino, winter will most likely be cooler and wetter than normal. Under La Nina, winter will most likely be warmer and drier than normal. He added that some winters “just don’t follow the pattern.”
We have experienced La Nina for the last two winters in which the last two winters have been drier than expected and last winter was warmer than normal.
He noted that two years ago the first half of winter was colder and the second half of winter was warmer so the average was near normal.
Neutral winters are kind of rollercoaster ones, he said, with some very warm periods then some very cold periods.
He said if we have a major cold outbreak with temperatures in the single digits, these are more likely during a neutral winter. He added that rainfall under a neutral winter can be quite variable and that there is an increased probability of icy weather.
“We’ll be in a neutral pattern this winter,” he said.
The most probable outcomes include rollercoaster temperatures, more rainfall than in the last two winters, an increased probability of at least one if not two or three extreme cold outbreaks with temperatures in the single digits, and probably an ice storm or two.
“If we have normal rainfall this winter, that will allow us to recharge the soil moisture,” he said. “If we have normal rainfall we’ll be in good shape for spring.”
Printed in the November 15, 2012 edition