Originally created 01/01/02

Georgia thirsts for rain



ATLANTA - Georgia's still-unquenched drought enters it's fifth calendar year today - and it doesn't show signs of stopping any time soon.

Savannah had the largest rain deficit of any major city in Georgia during 2001, ending up with nearly 17 inches less than it usually sees over the course of the year.

Similarly, Atlanta posted a deficit of more than 12 inches, while Augusta fell almost 11 inches short of its average.

Only Athens had a deficit of less than 10 inches, but the situation was really worse than it appeared in Athens, state climatologist David Stooksbury said.

"That's a little deceptive because (Athens) had over 7 inches of rain in a two-day period," he said. "Most of that fell in a six-hour period."

Consequently, once the Athens soil was saturated from that midsummer gully-washer, much of the rain ran off downstream instead of soaking in.

"It's most definitely not a short-term drought," said Mr. Stooksbury, who works out of the engineering department at the University of Georgia. "We're talking about some pretty impressive numbers."

Waterways across the state posted record low-flow numbers during December, including the Oconee, Little and Altamaha rivers.

The lack of rain not only damaged the agricultural crop - one of Georgia's top money makers - but also tripled the number of forest fires in the state this fall.

In November, Georgia usually records about 570 fires. In 2001, however, there were nearly 1,800.

On some fall days, hikers on Stone Mountain, located 10 miles east of Atlanta, could see more than a dozen fires burning around the metro area.

"We had more fires than we could handle," said Daniel Chan, a meteorologist for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

The situation is growing even more dire now as the first weeks of winter tick by without any major wet spells.

"This is the time of year when we should be recharging our (water) systems across the state," Mr. Stooksbury said. "That's just not occurring. We are not getting the winter rainfalls we depend on to recharge our soil moisture, ground waters, our reservoirs and our streams."

January through March is usually the wettest time of the year for Georgia, with most areas seeing between 12 to 15 inches of precipitation.

Forecasters expect the state to see some wet weather in the next week, including the possibility of snow and sleet from Atlanta to Augusta on Wednesday.

Jim Noel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, said the next couple of weeks could produce normal rainfall amounts for the Southeast.

But Mr. Noel cautioned the wet period is only the short-term outlook.

The seasonal forecast for the Southeast calls for drier conditions than usual to persist from Athens to Augusta and stretching down to the coastal areas of the state as well, meaning the long-term drought will persist.