Originally created 12/23/99

Two-year drought plagues Georgia's farmers



ATHENS, Ga. -- The year 2000 may not be a happy one for Georgia farmers.

Despite this week's rainy weather over much of the state, a two-year drought still grips the region and is likely to persist well into next year, according to state climatologist David Stooksbury.

It's hard to tell that in Clarke County, which has been an island of wetness in a sea of drought -- statewide, only a small area around Clarke County, another small area in extreme northwest Georgia and counties along the Georgia coast have gotten near-normal rainfall during the past 12 months, according to the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences statewide monitoring system.

Clarke County rainfall through Dec. 20 was about 16 percent below normal for the year, but other parts of the state, especially in south and central Georgia, have had much greater deficits. Statesboro, for example, has had only about half its average annual rainfall.

The state is now entering its wettest part of the year, a time when groundwater and reservoirs are usually recharged by heavy rainfall, Mr. Stooksbury said. January, February and March historically rank no. 3, 4 and 1 on the monthly charts (July is no. 2), said Mr. Stooksbury, a faculty member in the university's department of biological and agricultural engineering.

According to the National Weather Service, this winter is likely to be warmer than normal, which could exacerbate the drought by promoting more evaporation, Mr. Stooksbury said.

Much of the state has been in drought since May 1998, and the state's farmers have now gone through two years of economic bad news -- a combination of low rain, high temperatures and low global prices, said state Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.

"We've had worse years, but all in all it was a real bad year," Mr. Irvin said.

Because of irrigation, many areas got good crops despite the drought, he said -- Vidalia onions, peaches, pecans and for the most part peanuts -- but corn growers who could not use irrigation had disastrous years, he said.

Mr. Irvin feared a dry winter could hurt winter cover crops and next spring's plantings.

"We've gotten some pretty good rains this fall, but there are large pockets that are powdery dry yet. We've gotten enough for the winter cover crops to sprout and emerge, but not for them to do well," he said.

And below-normal rainfall could prevent farm ponds from refilling, which would hurt growers' ability to irrigate, he said.

"The winter is when we recharge our soil moisture," Mr. Stooksbury said.

The impact of the drought has mainly fallen on farmers, but it has other negative effects, Mr. Stooksbury said.

Winter and early spring is normally a time of heightened forest fire risk, and drought makes that even more of a risk, he explained.

City dwellers have largely escaped the effects of this drought, which has been characterized mainly by its length of nearly two years -- so far.

"All droughts have their own flavor and characteristics. Sometimes they are short, intense droughts of a couple of months. The characteristic of this drought is that it's been prolonged," he said.

The drought's continuation is related to the La Nina weather pattern, a periodic cooling of the surface water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, Mr. Stooksbury said. During those conditions, the Southeastern United States usually gets below-normal precipitation, he said.

La Nina gained strength during November and shows no signs of weakening, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.