|Eintime Conversion for education and research 04-08-2008 @
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Relentless N. Carolina drought could be devastating in '08
By Mike Baker, Associated Press Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. The record-setting drought that has forced the governor to plead for conservation, homeowners to shelve their lawn sprinklers and farmers to drain their ponds for irrigation is only forecast to get worse in the new year.
If the predictions come true, convenience won't be the only casualty.
North Carolina's multibillion dollar agriculture industry is prepping for what may be a devastating year for both crops and livestock, while local governments are eyeing emergency plans and expensive solutions for water systems on the brink of crisis.
"We need to make sure we keep water going to the hospitals and the nursing homes and enough to people's homes for those fundamental needs," said John Morris, director of the North Carolina Division of Water Resources. "We're certainly at the point now where we need to have a good solid plan for those more extreme measures."
That "solid plan" may include water rationing, a step Morris predicted some parts of North Carolina will have to take if conditions get worse.
The rain that fell Wednesday across the state will help, but not much. The Southeast baked under a strong upper-level ridge that persisted through the summer, and without a tropical storm to dump a sudden burst of rain, the average rainfall deficit in North Carolina will be about 14 inches in 2007.
The weather wasn't just dry the Raleigh and Durham area set a record with 83 days in which temperatures hit 90 degrees, more than double the usual 37. When combined with growing demand for water from a surging population, the result was the worst drought since officials began keeping records at the end of the 19th Century.
"If we have another bad summer, that's when we get to the point where we stop talking about a crisis and we're actually in a crisis," said state climatologist Ryan Boyles.
Officials at Duke Energy are already bemoaning difficulties with some of its water-based electricity generators. Forestry officials say the drought-fueled wildfires charred some 37,000 acres of land about double the 10 year average and may get larger and more intense in 2008 as the tinder-dry landscape becomes more susceptible to fires triggered by lightning.
North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said if 2007's weather repeats itself, the state's agriculture business will be devastated. Farmers lost an estimated $382 million in crops in the past year, and Troxler said the ground is now so dry that there isn't enough moisture to germinate crops.
Lakes and ponds at many farms have already been drained to supplement irrigation and a lack of hay is forcing farmers to cull their cattle herds, Troxler said.
"We know that we're starting with low soil moisture right now," Troxler said. "If we have another year just like 2007, then this is going to get much worse."
The drought is also starting to hit the budgets of local governments. Durham is spending to pump water out of a quarry and is looking at treating the muddy water below the usual intakes in its Lake Michie and Little River reservoirs. City leaders are also considering spending more than $60 million to permanently expand its reserves to Lake Jordan and the abandoned quarry.
Elsewhere, Siler City is spending an extra $1 million to accelerate a pipeline to the water supply of Sanford. Rocky Mount and Wilson are connecting their water resources with an emergency pipeline that will cost $1.26 million.
"If we, as citizens, do not conserve (water), we jeopardize industry being able to continue, which jeopardizes jobs, and that hurts families," said Gov. Mike Easley while asking residents to cut consumption by at least 30 to 40%. Easley has urged local governments to significantly raise water prices on those who use it excessively.
Forecasters don't expect any immediate relief. The National Weather Service expects the La Nina climate pattern in which colder water in the tropical Pacific push the jet stream and wet weather north and away from the southeastern USA to stick around through the spring. La Nina strengthened significantly in December, the weather service said.
That pattern usually brings rainfall of 3 to 5 inches below normal in the six-month span covering winter and spring a tough forecast in a state that needs steady, above-average rainfall. The weather service puts the chances of North Carolina getting enough rain to ease the drought at less than 10%.
But forecasters also note that the summer months are unpredictable. A tropical system or slightly above average rainfall could alleviate much of the drought conditions, said Doug LeComte, a drought specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.
"I don't want to be too pessimistic," LeComte said. "Droughts do end, and sometimes surprisingly quickly. You never hope for a hurricane, but you might hope for the remains of one."
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04-08-2008 @ 12:48:31