Drought takes heavy but often gradual toll on Georgia

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Gerardo Hernandez (far right), 10, leaps to catch a ball thrown by his sister Ibeth Hernandez (left), 12, while Alexandra Yu, 9, and Christophe Gibson, 6, play at Thurmond Lake near Appling.  SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
Gerardo Hernandez (far right), 10, leaps to catch a ball thrown by his sister Ibeth Hernandez (left), 12, while Alexandra Yu, 9, and Christophe Gibson, 6, play at Thurmond Lake near Appling.

This year, as a system named Beryl wafted over Georgia, followed by last weekend’s near-record day of rainfall, the response was just short of applause.

“It brought a little relief, which we really needed,” said Georgia State Climatologist Bill Murphey.

But it will take more than occasional rains to rehydrate portions of the drought-parched Southeast.

Across much of the state – from Toccoa to Macon to Plains – soil remains dry, stream flows are down and water tables are receding as a lingering cycle of warm temperatures and low rainfall persist into the year’s hottest months.

In particular, the east Georgia region that includes Augusta has suffered the most.

Before last weekend’s heavy rains eased a long dry spell, the city had received less than 24 inches of rain over the previous 365 days, said Georgia Climate Office meteorologist Sean Miller.

“This gives a deficit of 20.79 inches, which ranks as the driest 365-day period on record,” he said. “What I find significant is the fact that weather records in the Augusta area go back over 140 years, making this a truly historic event.”

Even with last weekend’s rainfall, the 365-day deficit is 18.38 inches – still the driest on record, he said.

Although intermittent showers have helped keep lawns and gardens deceptively green, the consequences of drought and lack of soil moisture can take months – or years – to be fully recognized.

“It’s usually a multiple-year drought that leads to the worst problems,” said forest health specialist Mark Raines, of the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Drought stresses trees, which become more vulnerable to pests such as the southern pine beetle, which has the potential to inflict more forest destruction than all other pests combined.

The tiny beetles eat the thin layer of cambrium between the bark and wood. Once that section is girdled, trees can no longer move nutrients upward and the tree dies.

Pine beetle numbers don’t appear high this year, based in part on large numbers of another insect – the clervid beetle – that preys on them.

Continued drought, however, will take its toll one way or the other, he said.

Long-term drought cycles can affect row crops, too, costing millions of dollars.

“Down here, cotton, corn, peanuts and soybeans are the big four,” said Peyton Sapp, Burke County’s University of Georgia extension coordinator.

Even with recent rains that have greened up forests and fields, long-term trends that include periods of drought have changed the way most farmers do business, he said. Irrigation systems are now a necessity.

“If you’re going to stay in business you have to guarantee a certain amount of production, and there are no guarantees with dry land farming anymore,” Sapp said.

Occasionally heavy rains help, but will not necessarily sustain farmers through a growing season.

“All it’s going to take is one week of 90-plus-degree temperatures and low humidity, and that corn that looks so great this week can turn into almost nothing,” Sapp said.

Drought is a perennial concern up and down the Savannah River, which provides drinking water for 160,000 Augusta households and varying numbers of homes in neighboring communities.

Thurmond Lake, already more than 8 feet below full pool, is expected to fall several more feet in coming weeks.

“We had the driest May we’ve recorded since the first entry back in 1954,” said Stan Simpson, the water control manager for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah District.

It followed the driest April on record as well, he said, adding that inflows – the water entering the reservoir from tributaries other than upstream lakes – sometimes yielded negative values because of evaporation.

Even with last week’s scattered rains, the most recent projections say Thurmond’s pool level could fall by about 3.5 more feet by mid August, possibly requiring reductions in the amount of water released into the Savannah River.

Less flow in the river could mean downstream users might be required to limit water use.

Augusta Utilities Department, which relies on the river-fed Augusta Canal for much of its drinking water, is in discussions with the Canal Authority about reducing the use of hydropower turbines at King, Sibley and Enterprise mills if water flows are reduced. Those turbines, however, are a revenue source for the Canal National Heritage Area.

Although drought has many consequences, such cycles can also be broken with something as simple as a major period of rainfall.

“June 1 was the official start of the tropical season, so we’re just getting into the period when we usually see the large events,” Murphey said. “The peak is usually the end of the summer into early fall, so between August and early October you’d expect the number of storms to be higher.”

No one wants a damaging hurricane, but the soaking rains that can come with such storms could bring welcome relief to the region, he said.

This year’s forecast calls for nine to as many as 12 or 13 named storms in the Atlantic.

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Riverman1 06/17/12 - 07:22 am
Note the water table is dropping as is the lake

Note the water table is dropping as is the lake. It's not a conspiracy to keep the lake low. No Army COE black helicopters are involved moving water downstream.

omnomnom 06/17/12 - 09:23 am
sustainable development,

sustainable development, watering restrictions, & conservation education will all help in times of drought.

southern2 06/17/12 - 10:36 am
With the effects of the

With the effects of the drought understood, why is only 3 of the 10 southeast lakes posted daily in the AC more than 3 foot below full pool. Hartwell, Lanier, Thurmond seem to always suffer the most. 5 of the 10 are full. Why is Thurmond discharged on the weekend while Hartwell and Russell are not?

Riverman1 06/17/12 - 11:25 am
Southern2, the river has to

Southern2, the river has to be supplied. Hartwell and Russell don't directly supply outflow to the river, but I get your point. If Hartwell and Russell were also discharged on weekends the effect on Thurmond wouldn't be as great.

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