Published on 02/28/02

Drought Worsens Without Normal Winter Rains

The drought that started in May 1998 has worsened during the normal winter recharge period. Georgia depends on winter rains to replenish soil moisture, groundwater, rivers, streams and reservoirs. There is little hope for recovery until winter 2002-2003.

At the end of climatological winter, December through February, Georgia hasn't had the needed rain to recharge these systems. The drought has added to wildfire concerns as the state's peak wildfire period begins.

Soils Dry

Winter rainfall statewide has been very low. Only the northwest Georgia corner is near normal. Three-month rainfall in north Georgia include Athens at 62 percent of normal and Atlanta at 72 percent.

In middle Georgia, Augusta is at 50 percent of normal, Columbus 57 percent and Macon 55. South Georgia had Savannah at 47 percent and Tifton at 46.

Daily soil moisture levels are critically low across most of the state. Dry soils across the piedmont are at a level expected only once in 20 years for this time of year, according to the federal Climate Prediction Center.

Soils across the northern coastal plain are at once-in-10-year levels. And southern coastal plain soils are at once-in-five-year levels.

In the mountain counties, soil levels range from once in 20 years in Rabun County to once in four years in Dade. As with rainfall, the soils in Georgia's northwest corner are in better shape than in other areas.

streams711.gif (11482 bytes)


  bluedot.gif (119 bytes)   25th - 74th Percentile
  orangedot.gif (119 bytes)   10th - 24th Percentile
  burntdot.gif (74 bytes)   < 10th Percentile
  recorddot.gif (119 bytes)   Record Low for Day
  recorddot.gif (119 bytes)   Not Recorded
Streams Low

Stream flows are at or near record daily low flows statewide except the northwest corner, where flows are still very low. South of an Atlanta-to-Athens line, more than 80 percent of the minimally managed streams (those without large reservoirs) are setting daily low flow records.

In the mountains, the Chattahoochee River near Cornelia is at a daily record low. Low flows are reported on the Chattoga and Tallulah Rivers near Clayton, the Chestatee River near Dahlonega, the Etowah River near Canton, the Coosawattee River near Ellijay, the Oostanaula River near Resaca and Rome and the Coosa River near Rome.

In the piedmont, record daily records are being set on Peachtree Creek at Atlanta, Flint River near Griffin and Culloden, Upatoi Creek near Columbus, Ocmulgee River near Macon, Oconee River near Athens, Broad River near Bell and Little River near Washington.

In the coastal plain, record daily low stream flows are on the Flint River at Montezuma, Albany and Newton, Ichawaynochaway Creek at Milford, Spring Creek at Iron City, Ochlockonee River near Thomasville, Satilla River near Waycross, Oconee River near Dublin, Ocumulgee River at Lumber City, Ohoopee River near Reidsville, Altamaha River near Baxley and at Doctortown and the Ogeechee River near Eden.

Wildfire Risk High

Major reservoirs across north and central Georgia remain well below late-February normal pool. Reservoirs at least 5 feet below normal pool include Hartwell at 9 feet low, Clarks Hill at 8 and Lanier at 6.

Recent dry weather, low humidity and winds have heightened wildfire concerns. Most wildfires are caused by careless burning of debris such as leaves and household garbage.

Georgia has about six weeks left to recharge topsoil moisture. March is historically Georgia's wettest month. It will have to be very wet to recharge the topsoil moisture.

Hopes Dim

Even if a soggy March recharges the topsoil moisture, there will no reserve to carry plants through any extended hot, dry weather. It's doubtful that groundwater, streams and reservoirs can be recharged before the high water-use months.

There's little hope that Georgia will be able to pull out of this drought before fall. With an El Niño event developing in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, there's some hope of long-term recovery during the winter of 2002-2003.

Pam Knox is the director of the UGA Weather Network and serves as an agricultural climatologist with the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

David Emory Stooksbury is associate professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.