Published on 05/05/99

Drought Brings Bad Start for Georgia Farms, Forest Fires

It's dry. Very dry. Georgia's state climatologist David Stooksbury said May 4 that conditions are much worse than this time last year.

"Last year we were coming off an El Nino winter. We were actually very wet for the planting season," said Stooksbury, a professor of engineering in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"This year," he said, "we didn't get the winter rains we needed to replenish the soil moisture. So we are in the major planting season with below-average soil moisture."

In 1998, the Palmer Drought Severity Index showed excessive soil moisture during spring planting. This year the PDSI shows the southern third and northeast corner of the state in severe drought. The rest of the state is in moderate drought, except the northwest corner, which is in an early drought stage.

For many Georgia farmers, who have faced several years of bad weather, this could be the make-it-or-break-it year.

Droughts Take Time

"Drought isn't a situation you can see like a hurricane or a thunderstorm," Stooksbury said. "It develops over time. And it takes time to come out of it."

Droughts aren't strangers in Georgia. "We suffered through major droughts in 1998, '86 and '54," he said. "Drought is a normal part of our climate. But it's something we have to plan for."

Over the past nine months, Georgia has faced rainfall deficits of 5 to 15 inches, Stooksbury said. "In the critical three-month recharge period this winter," he said, "rainfall levels were 5 to 8 inches below normal."

Putting the drought into historical perspective, Stooksbury said that in 98 out of 100 years, the October-through-March precipitation in west-central Georgia could be expected to be greater than it has been this year. In 95 of 100 years, it could be expected to be greater in southwest and south-central Georgia than this year's totals.

Much Rainfall Needed

Stooksbury said we are entering a La Nina summer, which usually brings more tropical activity in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The rain from a tropical storm could help break the drought.

"In some areas, we need 11 inches of rainfall to get back to normal," he said. "Cooler temperatures and low winds have helped by keeping down the evapotranspiration rate."

The soil is losing moisture at one-fifth to one-quarter inch per day through evaporation and transpiration from plants. Georgia temperatures have mostly held to the 70s and low 80s with calm winds. When temperatures move into the 90s, the evapotranspiration rate increases to about one-third inch per day, adding to the need for more rain.

"May will be our critical month," Stooksbury said. "We aren't in a disaster situation yet. If we get rain in May we can make a crop."

Needs Greatest in South

Napoleon Caldwell, a Water Resources Management unit spokesman for the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, says water supply hasn't become a critical issue yet.

"A dry year equals more irrigation and water use," Caldwell said. "Our aquifers didn't get recharged over the winter, so the ground water can affect surface water flows."

The greatest anticipated effect will be in the Flint River basin, where most of the state's irrigated farmland lies.

Major metropolitan areas depend on surface waters from reservoirs for their water and aren't facing shortages.

"The reservoirs are fairly high," he said. "We expect some problems later in the summer, but not as severe as the problems in south Georgia."

Caldwell said the most prevalent problems in metro areas isn't the supply but the infrastructure that delivers the water.

"When daylight savings time begins, more people begin gardening and outdoor watering," he said. "That causes water pressure to dip to unacceptable levels."

Forest Fire Danger Greater

Another concern is the rise in forest fires. In March and April alone, Georgia had more than 3,700 forest fires, burning more than 26,000 acres. In the same months last year, Georgia had 1,300 fires, burning 6,000 acres.

"Usually by late April, when things green up, we are out of danger," said Fred Allen, director of the Georgia Forestry Commission. "That hasn't happened lately."

One of the big problems facing Georgia's forests is the lack of prescribed burning. "That releases the fuel buildup," Allen said. "Not doing it just adds fuel to the fire."

Incidentally, the worst forest fire in Georgia history was in the Okefenokee Swamp during the drought of 1954.

May, June and July predictions show a 38 percent chance south Georgia will be wetter than normal, a 33 percent chance it will be normal and a 28 percent chance it will be drier than normal.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.