Originally created 06/04/99

Drought beginning to affect farms, wildlife



ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's continuing drought threatens to become one of the worst, after one of the driest Mays in history.

For the most part, municipal water supplies are still adequate, but the drought is already having an impact on farmers and wildlife, say those working with it.

"If this hot, dry weather continues, we're in trouble," said Kerry Harrison, a hydrologist and irrigation specialist with the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Service in Tifton.

Macon got 20 percent of its normal May rainfall; Athens and Augusta got less than a third; and Columbus got barely a third. Of the state's major cities, only Atlanta got above-average rainfall -- by 0.13-inch, said Georgia state climatologist David Stooksbury.

Mr. Stooksbury said rainfall in Georgia this spring was the lowest since 1925 -- the driest spring on record.

Showers such as those that moved through parts of the state Wednesday night do little to help, he said.

At Radium Springs near Albany in south Georgia, where one of the state's last wild populations of striped bass live, water normally flows from underground at 90 million gallons per day -- a natural up-welling of cold, clear water fed from the vast, deep Floridan aquifer below.

After 13 months of below-normal rainfall, its flow is down to 2.5 million gallons a day, said University of Georgia hydrologist Todd Rasmussen.

Radium Springs, as well as similar springs that provide critical habitat and feed other south Georgia rivers, could stop flowing -- and could reverse their flow, polluting the aquifers, said Jim Hook, a Cooperative Extension water and agriculture expert based in Tifton.

Nearby, at a U.S. Geological Survey monitoring station on the Flint River at Newton, the flow was down to 1,730 cubic feet per second Wednesday -- compared to an average flow of 4,500 cfs. In May, Flint River flows on some days were lower than ever before recorded, Mr. Hook said.

In the southeast corner of the state, a fire in the Okefenokee Swamp and north Florida grew to an estimated 64,000 acres Wednesday.

This is the second straight year fires have blackened the national wildlife refuge, but this fire is about a month earlier than last year's blaze, and is four times as large, according to Georgia Forestry Commission records.

In northeast and central Georgia, the water situation is not so bad, said Nick Nicholson, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist based in Appalachee.

The drought is having an impact on wildlife in the area, Mr. Nicholson said. Because there are fewer insects for songbirds and other nesting birds to feed their fledglings, fewer are surviving.

"There's a much lower survival rate of nestlings because of the drought," he said.

The drought's pressure on wildlife will soon show up in another way in Clarke and Oconee counties, he said. Deer, who normally browse in the cool of the morning and at twilight, will be abroad in the daylight, and showing up in irrigated fields and gardens, where they can find something moist and green to eat.

Things could bounce back quickly, said one scientist.

"Right now everything is OK. All the springs are flowing. It's early, and this system responds fairly quickly to showers," said Matt Thomas, a DNR fisheries biologist based in Albany.

But meanwhile, wells are running dry in some places in south and middle Georgia.