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08/26/2002 - Updated 12:05 AM ET
Drought likely to spare U.S. economy as whole
By Martin Kasindorf, Patrick McMahon, Traci Watson and Deborah Sharp, USA TODAY
This summer's drought is shaping up as one of the worst since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. More than a third of the USA is in the most severe stages of dryness, well above the average year's 15%.
John Williams, owner of a trail rides business, shows impact of drought on Mormon Lake, Ariz.
By Matt York, AP
Luckily, in a season of excessive sunshine, the nation's economy is finding a shady spot. It is likely to dodge catastrophe as the specter of doubling food prices, failing farms and the elderly dying in heat waves fails to materialize.
But though the drought appears to be falling short of national disaster, for many communities it's a local disaster. Parts of 45 states from Maine to Hawaii are sweltering through an abnormally arid year in some places, the fifth straight year of disappointing rains and mountain snowpacks. The 21 hardest-hit states, mostly in the Southeast, the Great Plains and the West, are suffering what the government calls "extreme" or "exceptional" drought.
The Colorado River is flowing at 14% of normal, the lowest figure in 150 years of record-keeping. Hundreds of cities across the USA are imposing water-use limits. Ranchers are selling off cattle at distress prices because there's no water or forage.
As gloomy as it is, the concern over climatic trends could be a lot worse. Countering the bad news:
Most Americans not living on farms or ranches are suffering no major inconvenience. Homeowners with swimming pools in Los Angeles and Phoenix can ignore the Colorado River's trickle because there's enough water in reservoirs to avoid restrictions.
In many water-short communities, the bans on sprinkling lawns and washing cars have no teeth. They're voluntary.
Agriculture, the No. 1 victim in every drought, has winners as well as losers. Although times are the most discouraging in memory for cattle ranchers in the parched Rocky Mountain West, Texas expects a record cotton crop. New Mexico is rejoicing in a vintage year for its famous green chiles.
The drought's impact on food prices is modest. Keith Collins, the Agriculture Department's chief economist, predicts a small increase that won't show up until next year. Vegetable oils, cereals and baked goods will see most of the rise. Retail beef prices are dropping and won't rise until "later 2003 and 2004," says former Agriculture undersecretary John Schnittker, an economic consultant in California.
Researchers at the National Drought Mitigation Center say the drought's duration and geographic reach may have vaulted it past the last big one, that of 1988. It "now sits behind the droughts of the '30s and '50s," they say.
If so, this drought is still comparatively puny. At the height of the eight-year Dust Bowl, skies darkened with blowing topsoil and 63% of the nation was in the most severe stages of drought. This week, that figure is 37%.
As a human and economic catastrophe, the 1988 drought is likely to remain in a modern-day class of its own. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the drought and heat wave 14 years ago in the Midwest and East cost $56 billion. It caused as many as 10,000 deaths.
There have been few deaths in this summer's heat. The dryness has contributed to what may end as a record season for wildfires. Monstrous fires have rampaged through Colorado, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Oregon. Firefighters have managed to save most endangered homes. Tourism dropped when some national forests were closed because of fire, but the hit wasn't a bad one, Western state officials say.
The firefighting is expected to cost $2 billion, the National Interagency Fire Center says. Also, the drought has damaged forests with pine beetle infestations. And it has hatched swarms of grasshoppers and crickets that have devoured Western crops.
It's too early to add up agriculture's loss because not all of the crops have been harvested.
Losses to farmers and ranchers, and to dependent local businesses, are likely to fall well short of 1988 figures while exceeding the $9 billion of 1998.
In six states where officials are willing to offer estimates, the total exceeds $9 billion, including a $1.8 billion bite out of South Dakota's annual $23 billion economy. The Agriculture Department forecasts wheat harvests down 14%, corn 7% and soybeans 9%.
But lost crops don't always mean out-of-pocket losses for farmers. They'll get higher prices for crops that survive, and losses are covered in many cases by the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. So far this year, farmers have filed insurance claims for $590 million. Claims at the same time last year were much higher: $2.9 billion.
Despite demands by Western governors for more federal action, President Bush said on Aug. 15 at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in drought-stricken South Dakota that to combat deficit spending, he won't support any special emergency funding for drought relief.
Some thirsty communities fear that worse is yet to come.
Hal Shepherd, city manager of Cortez, Colo., says residents won't be able to water lawns next year unless there's a good snowpack. "If we don't have a real wet winter, we're in serious trouble," he says.
Weather forecasters say there is long-term hope. A Pacific Ocean cold-water condition called La Niña started in 1998 and triggered the drought, some experts say.
Now, a warm-water El Niño "sputtering to life," Agriculture Department meteorologist Brad Rippey says. The phenomenon may bring much-needed winter wetness to some regions, he says.
Most areas got normal or above-normal rain from April through June, easing long droughts in Maine and other states. But the rain skipped southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and most of Maryland and Delaware.
There, farmers are watching crops bake and suburbanites are coping with water restrictions. Southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey moved into the "extreme" category Thursday.
Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker recently extended a drought emergency declaration for 14 counties. In normally fertile Lancaster County, the corn is brown and pastures are empty as farmers dump livestock. "The crops are for the most part dying a very, very slow death," says Bob Anderson, an agronomy agent in the county.
Frederick, Md., tightened limits on water use in July and is considering trucking in water. "There's no end in sight unless we get some pretty intense rain," city spokeswoman Nancy Gregg Poss says.
Government forecasts don't brighten the picture. They predict below-normal rain through November in much of the region.
In 39 Texas counties that have been declared flood disaster areas, the problem is too much water. But torrential rains didn't reach fruit and vegetable fields in the lower Rio Grande Valley or West Texas cattle land. It has been "hit pretty hard," says Allen Spelce of the Texas Department of Agriculture.
In Arizona, annual monsoon rains didn't happen this month. Worried northern cities of Flagstaff and Williams aren't hooked to Colorado River pipes that have bailed out Phoenix and Tucson.
With rainfall 25% of normal, Santa Fe is under tight water rules. Residents can water yards only once a week. Car lots wash vehicles once a month. Repeat violators can lose water service. City officials failed to plan for population growth by buying enough private water rights, says Beatriz Rivera, who heads Gov. Gary Johnson's drought task force.
Nevada wildfires have stayed in remote mountains, but it's a tough year for animals and alfalfa, says Paul Iverson, the state's agriculture director. Ranked on a 1-to-10 scale, the 3-year-old drought is "definitely a 9," he says.
It's the driest year since 1883 in Idyllwild, Calif., a mountain town near Los Angeles that depends on wells. There's a ban on watering landscaping.
Elsewhere in California, the drought doesn't rank with the major bout in 1987-92, says Jeanine Jones of the Department of Water Resources.
Washington state has few problems, and the Oregon water picture is "fairly normal," says David Cassel of the state emergency management department. Only watermelon-growing Umatilla County has been declared a disaster area this year. As indicated by the fire ravaging southern Oregon, fires are "worse this year because of the dryness last year," when 18 counties were on the disaster list, Cassel says. El Niño is considered likely to dampen dried-out Southern California.
Nearly every county in Virginia and the Carolinas suffers from severe drought. Towns are ordering businesses to cut water use. One water system is testing stagnant water in quarries, hoping it will be safe for home use.
South Carolina's lakeside marinas are closing, their docks high and dry. Large patches of state forest are brown, thanks to drought and $93 million in damage from the Southern pine beetle. Brackish seawater infiltrating South Carolina's Waccamaw River is bringing dolphins inland.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley has ordered state agencies to cut "non-essential" water use, including washing patrol cars. He has asked towns to cut consumption 20%. Statesville, N.C., has ordered major businesses to cut water use 40%. Residents are collecting rainwater in jugs and using paper plates to save dishwashing water.
Drought has damaged North Carolina's pepper crop, and corn has been "devastated," says Mike Blanton, a spokesman for the state's agriculture department.
In Shelby, N.C., officials declared last Thursday a "day of prayer for drought relief." The town has had to buy water from a private pond. Monticello, Ga., south of Atlanta, has banned outdoor watering.
Federal officials have declared 20 cities and counties drought disaster areas, enabling farmers and others to seek federal aid.
Forecasters say South Carolina is likely to get adequate rain in the next few months.
Drought is predicted to ease only slightly in Virginia and North Carolina.
CLEWISTON, Fla. Drought? What drought? The record-setting dry spell that brought wildfires and water restrictions as recently as last year to Florida now seems a dim memory.
And the reason for the recovery is pretty simple. "We got rain," says David Zierden, assistant state climatologist.
Not every corner of the state is out of the woods: Some rivers and lakes, particularly in north central Florida, remain low. And a handful of 67 counties continue mandatory restrictions on lawn watering and other outdoor uses. Nevertheless, the return of routine rains, especially along the heavily populated southeastern coast, has replenished underground aquifers from which 90% of Floridians' drinking water is drawn.
With an average 53 inches of rain a year, Florida can top a desert state's annual precipitation with one heavy storm. Last year, three tropical storms helped erase the rainfall deficit. In addition, the "wet" half of Florida's normal wet and dry cycle returned with average rains in the summer season.
Among the most dramatic examples of nature's restorative power: Lake Okeechobee, which is full and healthy after dropping to its lowest level ever in May 2001.
The second-largest lake, after Lake Michigan, in the continental United States, Lake Okeechobee is 33 miles long and 30 miles wide. Its name comes from the Seminole Indian word for "big water."
The lake, now slightly above average at 14.72 feet above sea level, had plummeted to a record low of 8.97 feet by the end of a drought that gripped parts of Florida for three years. "It was dry as a bone right here," says boat captain Terry Garrels, pointing at now-brimming waters. "People thought it would take years to recover. But the good Lord and Mother Nature really turned things around."
And just in time, too, according to those whose livelihood is the lake. Mary Ann Martin, who founded Roland Martin's Lakeside Resort with her former husband, a fishing legend, says the drought cut her marina and lodging business by 70%. With losses totaling more than $1 million, she had to reduce her staff by two-thirds. Martin and other lake-linked concerns applied last year for federal disaster loans.
"How do you run a marina without any water?" asks Martin, who gave a tour last summer to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of 100 high-and-dry boat slips at her resort.
The docks at Martin's marina are now comfortably afloat. Despite business setbacks, the drought brought environmental benefits. The lake is cleaner, as the sun burned bottom sediment and enabled light-loving grasses and other underwater plants to grow.
And, locals say, the fishing is better. "That rain saved a lot of us," Garrels says. "We're pretty happy."
"It's as bad as it was in the Dust Bowl," Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns says. He estimates his state's economic losses at $1.3 billion and growing. In west-central Nebraska's Sand Hills, he says, "it looks like the moon." Ravenous grasshoppers are "the worst in memory."
Farmers "just don't spend money," Johanns says. "Kids will go to school in the same clothes they wore last year."
More than 20 Nebraska communities are rationing water. The state has a list of 185 milk haulers who could transport water to dried-out towns in a pinch. As farmers pump groundwater from irrigation wells to make up for lack of rain, local water levels drop and cities complain that their wells are sucked dry. Sidney, Neb., city manager Gary Person wants the state to step in to ensure towns' supplies.
In Nebraska and Colorado, more than 90% of pastures are listed in poor or very poor condition for livestock. Some parts of South Dakota are drier than in the 1930s Dust Bowl.
On parts of the Missouri River, water levels have dropped so low that most barges can't run. Part of the reason is that the Army Corps of Engineers has held back water behind some dams to protect birds nesting on sandbars. The excursion vessel River Explorer canceled outings. Meteorologists don't expect much short-term relief.
In a fast-growing, naturally arid region, booming populations are running into the limits of water resources.
After enjoying the wettest decade in Colorado history in the 1990s during which 1 million people moved into the state at least a dozen Colorado cities have ordered water rationing. Denver, Aurora and Boulder have water cops checking for running lawn sprinklers and wet streets.
Denver allows watering every third day for three hours before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. Tighter restrictions are being considered. An ad campaign for conservation urges residents to "Only Wash the Stinky Parts." City reservoirs hit a historic low July 1. Gov. Bill Owens signed into law this month a $1 million emergency fund so farmers and ranchers can buy water.
The lark bunting, Colorado's state bird, is vanishing because of dwindling food and water. Out on the range, antelope are having fewer fawns. Cattle ranchers are selling herds or moving them out of state.
In Walsenburg, Colo., the Cachero River, the city's principal drinking-water source, is dry. The city has banned outdoor watering and is pumping water from a nearby county park. The county is offering residents free non-potable water pumped from abandoned coal mines.
The Boysen Reservoir in Wyoming, nearly empty, has cut off irrigation water to farms. Montana Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, a cattle rancher who chairs the state's drought committee, says drought has been "unprecedented for the last three to four years." But there has been some improvement this summer. To the relief of fishing and river-rafting guides who hardly worked last year, most river and lake fishing restrictions have ended.
Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt says state farm and ranch losses total $400 million, including grasshopper and cricket depredations. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has declared the state a disaster area. Ranchers are pulling steers off arid federal rangeland and talking about quitting the business.
"We need a good winter all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border in the intermountain West," U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys says.
A good winter means snow. In the Four Corners area of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, at least, El Niño might bring rain.
Slammed in 1998 by the last large-scale drought, this region has been "spared from the current drought's devastating effects," says Brad Rippey, an Agriculture Department meteorologist. But since mid-June, it has "been hit pretty hard, especially the corn and soybean crops," he says.
In the Ohio River Valley, the change has been dramatic, says Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center. Fields that had standing water in June "went from the haves to the have-nots pretty fast."
At St. Patrick parish church in Grand Rapids, Ohio, this month, the congregation prayed for rain. Trends point toward more downpours like those of last Thursday, but not in the Ohio River Valley.
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