THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Prolonged drought leaving 14 states parched

Farms, ranches in southern tier bearing brunt

The drought has hit West Palm Beach, Fla., where this dock sits above a dried lake bed. The dock runs 60 feet from the shoreline. The drought has hit West Palm Beach, Fla., where this dock sits above a dried lake bed. The dock runs 60 feet from the shoreline. (J Pat Carter/ Associated Press)
By Kim Severson
New York Times / July 12, 2011

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COLQUITT, Ga. - The heat and the drought are so bad in this southwest corner of Georgia that hogs can barely eat. Corn, a lucrative crop with a notorious thirst, is burning up in fields. Cotton plants are too weak to punch through soil so dry it might as well be pavement.

Farmers with the money and equipment to irrigate are running wells dry in the unseasonably early and particularly brutal national drought that some say could rival the Dust Bowl days.

“It’s horrible so far,’’ said Mike Newberry, a Georgia farmer who is trying to grow cotton, corn, and peanuts on 1,000 acres. “There is no description for what we’ve been through since we started planting corn in March.’’

The pain has spread across 14 states, from Florida, where severe water restrictions are in place, to Arizona, where ranchers could be forced to sell off entire herds of cattle because they simply can’t feed them.

In Texas, where the drought is the worst, virtually no part of the state has been untouched. City dwellers and ranchers have been tormented by excessive heat and high winds. As they have been in the Southwest, wildfires are chewing through millions of acres.

Last month, the US Department of Agriculture designated 213 of the 254 counties in Texas as natural disaster areas. More than 30 percent of the state’s wheat fields might be lost, adding pressure to a crop in short supply globally.

Even if weather patterns shift and relief-giving rain comes, losses will surely head past $3 billion in Texas alone, state agricultural officials said.

Most troubling is that the drought, which could go down as one of the nation’s worst, has come on extra hot and extra early.

In a spring and summer in which weather news has been dominated by epic floods and tornadoes, it is hard to imagine that nearly a third of the country is facing an equally daunting but very different kind of natural disaster.

From a meteorological standpoint, the reason is fairly simple. “A strong La Niña shut off the southern pipeline of moisture,’’ said David Miskus, who monitors drought for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

The weather pattern called La Niña is an abnormal cooling of Pacific waters. It usually follows El Niño, which is an abnormal warming of those same waters.

Although a newly released forecast from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center suggests this dangerous weather pattern could revive in the fall, many in the parched regions find themselves in the unlikely position of hoping for a season of heavy tropical storms in the Southeast and drenching monsoons in the Southwest.

Climatologists say this year’s drought is starting to look a lot like the one that hit the nation in the early to mid-1950s. That one, too, dried a broad swath of the southern tier of states into leather and remains a record breaker.

But this time things are different in the drought belt. With states and municipalities strapped for cash and unemployment still high, the stress on the land and the people who rely on it for a living is being amplified by political and economic forces, state and local officials say.

As a result, this drought may have the cultural impact of the great 1930s drought.

“In the ’30s, you had the Depression and everything that happened with that, and drought on top,’’ said Donald A. Wilhite, director of the school of natural resources at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and former director of the National Drought Mitigation Center. “The combination of those two things was devastating.’’

The drought is having some odd effects, economically and otherwise.

“One of the biggest impacts of the drought is going to be the shrinking of the cattle herd in the United States,’’ said Bruce A. Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames. And that will have a paradoxical impact on the price of a steak.

Ranchers whose grass was killed by drought cannot afford to sustain cattle with hay or other feed, which is also climbing in price. Their response will probably be to get rid of animals. That glut of beef would lower prices temporarily.

But America’s cattle supply will ultimately be lower at a time when the global supply is already low, resulting potentially in much higher prices in the future.

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