Published on 09/08/99

Drought Raises Farm, Water, Wildfire Concerns

As Georgia enters fall, concerns about the current drought's impacts on water resources, wildfire potential and agriculture are mounting.

The Palmer Drought Severity Index, a measure of hydrological drought, indicates that southwest and west central Georgia are having an extreme drought.

Ogeechee-s.jpg (34989 bytes)
Photo: Dan Rahn

The drought has caused unusually low river flows, as seen in this normally shallow, but not dry, Ogeechee River section in east central Georgia.

The rest of Georgia is in severe drought except in the northwest and north central regions, which are classified as being in moderate drought.

Low River Flows

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, several Georia rivers are running near record low flows. These include the Flint, Ocumulgee, Altamaha, Etowah, and Tallulah Rivers.

Low river flows can imperil municipal water supplies, raise the water temperature, decrease dissolved oxygen levels and increase the concentration of pollutants. Near the coast, low river flows allow increased saltwater movement upstream and increased salinity in coastal marshes.

Wildfires a Threat

Wildfires are also a concern across Georgia. The Georgia Forestry Commission has issued an advisory against outdoor burning.

"If it's absolutely necessary to burn outside, extreme precautions should be taken, because Georgia is undergoing an extreme drought," said Alan Dozier, GFC Chief of Forest Protection. "A single spark can set off a wildfire that could burn hundreds of acres."

Because of the drought, all GFC firefighting crews and cooperators are on 24-hour alert. In August, GFC reports twice the normal number of forest fires, with 3,522 acres burned.

pdsi97.gif (8179 bytes)Crops' Condition Declining

Major crops continued to deteriorate last week, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. GASS rated 47 percent of the soybean crop, 40 percent of the cotton, 59 percent of pastures and 25 percent of pecans were rated in poor to very poor condition.

Most of the major crops in Georgia have already been made or ruined by the drought. Many farmers don't want rain now, because it would delay harvesting. Wind from a tropical storm would reduce yields by damaging crops that are ready for harvest.

Rain Would Help Some

However, rainfall would be beneficial for beef and dairy farmers. It would improve pastures, decrease the need for supplemental feeding and possibly allow for another hay harvest.

Rain is needed for fall plantings, too. Most soils in the state are too dry for good seed germination. GASS reports that moisture is short to very short in 81 percent of the state's soils.

The Crop Moisture Index rates the soils in southwest Georgia as extremely dry, with most dryland crops ruined. Soils in west central and northwest Georgia are severely dry, with potential dryland yields severely cut.

Drought Links

Yield prospects are reduced by excessively dry soils in southeast, central, and east central Georgia. Abnormally dry soils are found in south central, north central and northeast Georgia.

Bright Spots

The tourism industry in the north Georgia mountains will be one of the few benefactors from the drought. The leaves this fall should have average to above average color. The wine industry should also benefit from the dry weather.

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