Drought watch is bad timing for farmers

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – You have to go back to the early 1980s to find a March as dry as this one in Pennsylvania.
Largely because of March’s lack of rainfall, the state Department of Environmental Protection in mid-April declared a drought watch that asks state residents to cut back on nonessential water use by 5 percent.
No cause for alarm yet, but water resources specialist Bryan Swistock worries that a serious situation is developing.
“I don’t want folks to panic, but I don’t like the way this is shaping up for our groundwater supplies,” he said.
“A drought is never a good situation to be in, but for us to be this dry, this early in the year, is a very bad thing.”
Although rainfall is also below normal in some areas of Ohio, there is no talk of a drought watch, according to Ohio EPA spokesperson Linda Oros.
Won’t be enough. Swistock, who works in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, said he is very aware of farmers’ need for rain in the spring.
But for groundwater supplies, given how dry it has been in recent months, the normal amounts of rainfall won’t be enough.
“This is a bad time to start a drought because farmers are trying to plant their crops and they must have adequate soil moisture,” he said.
“But if we are lucky and the showers are timed right, we might get just enough moisture for crops to grow and farmers will be pleased. But folks who depend on wells for drinking water might still face a serious shortage in late summer.”
Starting out low. What concerns Swistock is that March and April generally are the wettest months – the time of year when groundwater supplies should be recharging.
“In Pennsylvania, there aren’t great variations between average precipitation from month to month,” he said. “But typically in March and April, we get a lot of rain.
“Groundwater starting out the year so low could prove to be disastrous later because usually the levels go down from here. As soon as the trees start leafing out and taking up large amounts of water – about now in southern Pennsylvania – it is very difficult to get water into the ground.”
Below normal. Two-thirds of Pennsylvania counties are 50 percent or more below normal rainfall levels, according to Pa. Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty.
The rest of the counties are at least 25 percent, she said.
In western Pennsylvania, rainfall deficits range from 3 inches in Allegheny, Mercer and Washington counties to 2 inches in Erie County.
A drought watch is the lowest of three levels of drought status. It calls for a 5 percent reduction in water use.
The next level, a drought warning, calls for a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction. Both of these are voluntary.
A drought emergency, however, includes mandatory water-use reductions of at least 15 percent.
Pennsylvania’s last drought emergency was in 2002.
Unreliable. Although he is in the business of monitoring and anticipating precipitation levels, Swistock readily concedes that long-term weather forecasts are unreliable.
“Beyond three months, I don’t pay any attention to them,” he said. “But we don’t see any dramatic weather patterns coming into the summer – we are just not getting much moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. It looks like this drought will get worse before it gets better.
“Looking at the long-term weather forecast by the National Weather Service, Pennsylvania is sort of sandwiched between an area to our south extending down to the Carolinas where a significant drought is projected to develop and an area to our north around the Great Lakes that is projected to receive above-average amounts of rainfall,” Swistock said.
“So I suppose we could go either way. But the way our year has started doesn’t give me any confidence.”
Hurricanes could help. Ironically, while much of the rest of the country dreads the coming hurricane season that has been forecast to be worse than normal, Pennsylvania by late summer may desperately need tropical moisture.
“If you look at our state’s history, almost all of the serious droughts were broken by the remnants of hurricanes bringing prolonged rains,” he said.
“The year after Katrina, I hate to say this, but Pennsylvania may be glad to see the remnants of hurricanes this year if the current weather pattern continues.”
Although his experience monitoring precipitation in Pennsylvania makes him pessimistic about groundwater supplies in a year such as this, Swistock knows a lot can happen weather-wise before late summer.
“Seems like every time I talk about drought, it rains,” he said.
“But it will be tough for one or two storm events to overcome this drought. We need to see a change in the weather pattern.”

Get the details

* To get more information on dealing with drought, visit www.cas.psu.edu, click on “Health and Emerging Issues,” and then click on “Drought Resources” under “Emergency Readiness.”

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