Pa. drought emergency dries up hope for quick recovery

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SALEM, Ohio – A mid-February declaration of drought emergency for 24 Pennsylvania counties has Penn State experts wondering how the water situation will shake out in the coming months, especially for agricultural producers.

“So far, this has been an invisible drought,” said groundwater expert Bryan Swistock. “It has been a water supply drought – the really dry weather started last fall after the growing season was over. In many places, we have a groundwater crisis. But they can’t see groundwater, so most people aren’t concerned.”

No difference. According to Swistock, groundwater levels are so low a rainstorm won’t make much of a difference in the drought that has parched the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Georgia since 1999.

“Unless we get considerably more than average precipitation in a short time – between now and early May – this drought will be worse on a water-supply basis than the drought of ’99,” he said.

Statewide average yearly precipitation averages around 3 inches a month. Figures released by the National Climatic Data Center in January shows most areas needing between 12 and 31 inches of rain to pull the state out of drought in the next four months.

The bleak outlook follows Pa. Gov. Mark Schweiker’s upgrading of 24 counties to emergency status Feb. 12. Seven other counties remain in drought warning, and 31 are under drought watch.

In western Pa., Allegheny, Beaver, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties are still ranked as ‘normal’ by the state.

Emergency status. The emergency status is issued to assure at least minimum water supplies to protect public health and safety, support essential and high priority water uses and to avoid economic dislocations.

Water use restrictions may be imposed during emergencies to reduce water use by at least 15 percent in affected counties.

Swistock still fears the worst in upcoming months.

“We have been in a pretty long pattern of dry weather,” he said. “In some parts of the state, it has been abnormally dry since 1999. Until that pattern starts to break down, I have a really bad feeling about this drought. If we don’t have a wet spring, we are going to be in trouble.”

Down the road. Penn State agricultural experts are also looking down the road to planting and harvest seasons.

“So far, the drought hasn’t had a great impact on crops since last fall,” said agronomist Greg Roth.

“If anything, we’ve seen positive impacts with dry ground during harvest, minimum compaction from winter manure hauling, and minimum nitrogen leaching from soils.”

However, once planting season begins, it will be a different story.

“It’s not too early to look at cropping systems and ways to conserve soil moisture,” he said. Roth recommends reducing tillage, planting early and when selecting crops, especially corn, choosing drought-tolerant hybrids.

“Plus, the earlier we can get into the ground, the better chance the plants will have to get ready for mid-season drought stress,” he said.

Roth also urged producers to examine crop rotations, but doesn’t anticipate the necessity for a large change.

“If this keeps on like it is, we’re going to be looking at low yields,” and underdeveloped grains and high disease and insect damage, he said.

Recharge supply. “Heavy spring rains are something we should all look forward to, producers or not, but even that may have little impact in the groundwater situation,” he said, noting groundwater recharge is typically November through March, and this year’s rainfall has done little to recharge the water supply.

Data released by the state Department of Environmental Protection indicates Washington and Greene counties, as well as most of southeastern Pennsylvania, has received precipitation levels between 26 percent and 50 percent below normal in the last 180 days. The remainder of the state has received 25 percent less to normal levels in the same time period.

Ornamental crops. In years of drought, homeowners can expect to see fewer leaf spot diseases on ornamental crops, but historic data shows an increase in canker diseases one to two years after drought onset, according to Gary Moorman, Penn State plant pathologist.

“The leaf spots need water to develop so we’re safe that way, but we seem to be following the trend and seeing more canker-type diseases,” like phomopsis, cytospora and botryosphaeria on maples, blue spruces and rhododendrons, he said.

During drought, Moorman warns homeowners and growers of ornamentals to watch for dying branches.

“The plant may have been infected two years ago and was weakened, but this summer is when the diseases will girdle branches and kill them,” he said.

“Drought is a long-term problem, especially when there’s barely enough water to keep anything green. We didn’t think this drought was so bad, but now anyone can see that we’re not having to dig too deep to find the ground is too dry,” he said.

Livestock health. Penn State extension veterinarian Larry Hutchinson forecasts a difficult year for livestock as well.

The drought will likely affect forage availability for ruminants.

“It’s either going to be unavailable or really expensive, and farmers are going to try to cut corners to get around it,” he predicted. However, he said, underfeeding or feeding low quality forages high in mold or nitrates will contribute to secondary problems, including metabolic diseases.

“In an attempt to provide forages, a lot of farmers are going to go to alternative crops like sudangrass or sorghum. But they’ve got to be careful, because they can easily get into situations where poisonings occur from high nitrate or cyanide levels from grazing at the wrong time,” he said.

Analyze supplies. Hutchinson also predicts adverse effects of dry streambeds and lack of water availability for herds across the state, as well as high concentrations of blue-green algae in farm ponds and streams.

“Water will probably be piped out to pastures as the season goes on and ponds or wells dry up,” he said. Hutchinson urges producers to assure constant and adequate water and forage for their stock, and to analyze pasture quality to determine how many head each acre can support.

“This spring and summer, pastures aren’t going to support as many cows as they did last year or the year before. Limit the number you graze or be sure to provide supplemental forages,” he said.

Hutchinson also recommended water quality testing across the state. His list of components to test for include total bacteria, nitrates, and chloroform. He also recommends checking herds for heat stress regularly.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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