Penn State expert: Drought returns


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The three-year drought that gripped Pennsylvania until late spring has returned with a vengeance, according to a water resources expert in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, who worries the situation has reached crisis proportions in many locales.

“If it was not for the rain we got in May and June, boy would we be in trouble now – it was some of the wettest weather we ever had in those months,” said Bryan Swistock, extension specialist.

“The dry weather pattern has returned. In the southeastern part of the state, where a lot of that late-spring rain didn’t fall, the situation is very serious. Three counties are seeing groundwater and wells at all-time lows – Chester, Berks and Schuylkill counties. Lots of other counties are likely to be in trouble this fall.”

Surface water levels are suffering too. Record low stream flows have been recorded in Berks, Chester, Delaware and Cumberland counties, according to Swistock. Those are just four of the 14 counties that are under a drought emergency declaration.

“About the only thing that can break this dry weather pattern this fall would be tropical moisture,” said Swistock. “But the latest three-month weather prediction, extending into November, from the National Climate Prediction Center, calls for drier-than-average weather.

“We have had some scattered thunderstorms. The drought in Pennsylvania is extremely variable. There are huge differences in counties and crop losses, depending on where storms hit.”

According to the federal agency, areas not in drought are likely to develop drought conditions in the next few months, and where drought exists, it is expected to persist and intensify.

“People were telling me in May and June that the drought was over, but you just don’t end a drought of that magnitude with a month or two of rain,” he adds. “September and October are generally the driest months in our state – so the drought is likely to get worse.”

In central Pennsylvania, where late-spring rains were heaviest, surface water supplies are not as low as in the eastern part of the state, and groundwater has not yet returned to critically low levels. But crops are suffering, and in some areas farmers face significant losses from drought.

Corn has been particularly hard hit in places. In the southeast, crop losses are huge, and Gov. Mark Schweiker, speaking at Penn State’s Ag Progress Days Aug. 21, noted that he has asked the federal government for disaster relief funds for farmers.

“Whether it is grapes in the northwest or corn in the southeast, we are losing a good deal,” he said.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Sam Hayes says some farmers have already suffered 100 percent crop losses.

“Many farmers in central Pennsylvania are now trying to salvage what they can from their crops,” said Swistock. “If no ears are developing on corn because it is so dry, it makes sense to harvest it for silage.”

The weather pattern that has developed in the last few years reminds Swistock of a period nearly 40 years ago. He doesn’t think it can be attributed to global warming, but he is suspicious of mysterious, poorly understood ocean currents such as El Nino or La Nina.

“It is starting to look more and more like the 1960s, where we had a persistent drought,” he said. “We occasionally get a month with above-average rainfall, but overall the trend is for drought. And groundwater levels keep dropping.”

Pennsylvania’s population is not much greater than it was then, points out Swistock, but the population is now spread out more and uses more water. To deal with prolonged dry periods, Swistock believes Pennsylvanians will have to learn to conserve water.

“We do a very poor job of managing our water here,” he said. “In the western part of the country, where they don’t have much water, they do a much better job conserving water. Here in Pennsylvania, where we traditionally have had a lot of water, we waste too much.

“Many communities don’t have requirements for water-saving plumbing fixtures, and lots of municipalities don’t even have water meters.”

Regarding the drought in Pennsylvania, there are many things to be concerned about, Swistock says, but his biggest worry is for the farmers in the southeastern part of the state.

“This will be the fourth year in a row that farmers have had losses due to drought,” he said. “I just don’t know how they can keep up their businesses.”

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