ATHENS, Ga. -- The drought that has gripped Georgia since 1998 is likely to enter a third year -- and grow worse, according to state climatologist David Stooksbury.
March through July is likely to register below-normal rainfall in the state, according to the federal Climate Prediction Center. The agency is also warning that this summer could be hotter than normal.
The outlook is reason for concern, Mr. Stooksbury said -- for farmers, forest firefighters and city water officials.
Almost a year ago, Mr. Stooksbury and other state officials called a news conference about the growing drought, and conditions have worsened since then, said Mr. Stooksbury, an engineering professor in the University of Georgia's Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.
"I'm much more concerned than I was a year ago today because soil moisture is even lower now," Mr. Stooksbury said. "Usually during January and, particularly, February, we have plenty of rain to recharge soil moisture, but that has not occurred. We have had virtually no recharge, and in some places there is actually a water deficit for the year."
During the peak growing months of summer, it is normal for soil to lose more moisture from evaporation and transpiration than it receives through rainfall. But January and February are usually months of high rainfall in the state, and with little moisture loss, groundwater is replenished.
Not this year, however -- in some parts of the state, soil moisture actually was lost in January and February, Mr. Stooksbury explained.
"That is extremely rare," he said.
The Athens area has so far been spared the worst effects of the drought -- rainfall for the year is only about an inch below normal, and the Georgia Forestry Commission's "drought index" for the region is only about 100 -- very low, explained Tommy Hewell, forest ranger for the commission's Athens district.
"It's gotten better in the past month or so," Ranger Hewell said. "In January, we were thinking it was going to be a heavier year for fires.
"But the potential is still there," said Ranger Hewell, who pointed out that as of Saturday there were 18 fires in the 12-county Athens district. Most were not large, but one in Elbert County burned 19 acres.
Conditions are worse in south and west Georgia, where through rivers and streams statewide are flowing at historic lows or close to them, Mr. Stooksbury said.
"The Flint several times this month has had record low flows for the date, and most other streams across the state are in the bottom 10 percent for flow. Right now the big concerns are south Georgia and all of west Georgia," he said.
That means cities could be facing water restrictions much earlier than what's normal even in drought years.
"At the current rate, if we don't get some good rains in the next few weeks, we're going to get some water restrictions earlier than we've ever seen before. We have the potential for a major drought to be developing," Mr. Stooksbury said.
If the Climate Prediction Center's gloomy outlook proves true, that could also spell trouble for the state's farmers, according to John McKissick, an agricultural economist with University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Service.
"If it happens, obviously it's going to cut yields and increase costs," Mr. McKissick said.
At the same time, the disastrously low prices farmers have been getting for their crops the past two years show no signs of rising, he said.
One exception is in beef, which is one of the major agricultural products in northeast Georgia.
After three years of low prices, production has gone down, demand has increased, and prices as a result have gone up, Mr. McKissick said.
"Beef prices are kind of the bright star in the agricultural community," he said.
But a drought could slow down the growth of summer forage, when cattle get fattened up for market.
"It would be a double blow for cattle producers if they had to sell their cows just when a good price situation is getting here," Mr. McKissick said.
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