Exceptional drought spreading from Alabama into Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia

Published 3:24 pm Friday, June 15, 2007

The choking drought that’s killing crops and turning streams into dusty trails across the Southeast is expanding.

Previously limited to the northern half of Alabama, the drought classified as exceptional has grown like an ink blot to extend from eastern Mississippi across Alabama into southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia, government meteorologists said Thursday.

They classify conditions in the region as being worse than even those in southern Florida, where Lake Okeechobee is drying up, and the perennially dry West.

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Overall, the entire Southeast is in at least a moderate drought, except for the southern tips of Florida and Louisiana, the northern reaches of North Carolina and Virginia and parts of Arkansas and West Virginia, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“Seeing the effects this early in the year shows we are in a really unprecedented situation,” said John Christy, the state climatologist and a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The arid conditions mean the atmosphere will heat up more than normal as summer approaches, making triple-digit temperatures more common across the region, he said.

The combined effects on agriculture could be devastating.

In Alabama — where conditions are the worst and about 38 percent of the state is experiencing an exceptional drought — Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare the state’s northern tier of counties a disaster area.

The Drought Monitor said 78 percent of Alabama’s pastures are in poor or very poor condition, as are 48 percent of peanuts and 68 percent of the cotton crop.

Conditions are better in Georgia and other states where rainfall from tropical storm Barry doused fields long enough that cotton farmers who delayed planting because of the dry weather finally were able to get seeds in the ground.

“Things look a lot better than they did, but our crop is certainly going to be behind because of the late plantings,” said Richey Seaton, executive director of the Georgia Cotton Commission.

Many parts of the South have rainfall deficits in double digits for the year, and areas with the most extreme conditions are 20 inches or more below normal.

Dozens of water districts are urging voluntary conservation, and some have imposed bans on watering lawns and car washing.

In suburban Birmingham, the Cahaba River is down about 80 percent from its normal flow, exposing red-dirt banks and litter to recreational boaters.

“People are still going down the river, but it’s pretty low,” said Gavin Rains of Alabama Small Boats, which sells kayaks and canoes along the stream in Helena. “We’re in a dire drought right now, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Long-term forecasts show little chance for substantial rain unless a tropical system moves north across the Gulf of Mexico to displace a high-pressure system that is blocking moisture from entering the Southeast.

“Rainfall patterns by their nature are variable. This is just where (the drought) happens to be this time,” Christy said.

On the Net:

U.S. Drought Monitor: http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html