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Southeast Drought Again*

Southeast drying up again

By Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAY

Less than two years after recovering from drought, the Southeast is drying out again.

A U.S. Forest Service helicopter dumps water on a forest fire Wednesday near Leicester, N.C.

Steve Dixon, Asheville Citizen-Times

March is usually one of the wettest months in the region. But record-low rainfall this month in parts of Georgia, the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi raises the danger of spring wildfires and threatens crop growth.

Water officials say it's too soon to worry about water shortages or restrictions on lawn-watering and other household uses. This month's dryness has not jeopardized water supplies or wells. Nor have levels in rivers and lakes slipped to the point of bans on boating and water skiing, which happened two summers ago in the fourth year of the region's last drought. Abundant rain last year replenished reservoirs and groundwater.

But it is still quite dry. The flow of dozens of streams in the Southeast has ebbed to as little as one-third of normal. The national "Drought Monitor" map, updated Thursday by federal and state climate agencies, labels most of Georgia and South Carolina and parts of Alabama and North Carolina as "abnormally dry" for the first time since late 2002. (Related: Dought Monitor map, text)

Eleven major cities in six Southeastern states — and numerous smaller towns — are on track to set marks for the least rainfall in March. With less than a week until April, most have received less than 10% of average precipitation.

Driest March on record

City March 2004 Driest March Average March

Atlanta 0.45 0.88 (1905) 5.38

Charlotte, N.C. 0.50 0.58 (1985) 4.39

Greenville, S.C. 0.49 1.01 (1905) 5.31

Athens, Ga. 0.38 0.99 (1905) 4.99

Columbus, Ga. 0.20 1.38 (1985) 5.75

Montgomery, Ala. 0.56 0.85 (1910) 6.39

Tallahassee, Fla. 0.12 0.18 (1908) 6.47

Savannah, Ga. 0.08 0.18 (1955) 3.64

Source: National Weather Service

"I mowed the lawn the other day, and the dust came up," says Tom Moore, senior meteorologist for The Weather Channel, which is based in Atlanta.

A key reason for the dry patch, Moore says, is a persistent ridge of high pressure in the atmosphere above the region. For weeks, the weather phenomenon has blocked storms from passing over the Southeast.

Thursday's drought update also says "deeply entrenched drought" grips all of the West except the Pacific Coast. Parts of the Plains and upper Midwest also are in moderate to extreme dryness. A small swath of central New England also is abnormally dry.

Brian McCallum, a hydrologist in the U.S. Geological Survey's Georgia district, says the long-term forecast in the Southeast is for more dryness, so drought "could start to become a concern" once more. "But one well-placed hurricane could change everything," McCallum says.

Wildfire is an early consequence. About 200 fires have burned more than 3,300 acres of Alabama forest since an alert was posted last weekend for 55 of the state's 67 counties. A blaze Tuesday charred more than 10 acres in southeastern Atlanta — small by rural standards but remarkable within the boundaries of one of the Southeast's largest cities.

Contributing: Larry Copeland in Atlanta, Chris Vaccaro

(Original Len: 3486 Condensed Len: 3825)

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