The long-term drought that has plagued Georgia farmers since May 1998 is “all but over,” according to David Stooksbury, University of Georgia state climatologist.
Weather experts — including climatologists and hydrologists — use five indicators of drought: rainfall, soil moisture, stream flows, lake levels and groundwater levels. As 2002 came to an end, four of the five indicators of drought were near-normal to above-normal in Georgia. Only groundwater levels have been slow to recover.
“The continuation of the El Nino weather pattern indicates that near-normal to above-normal rainfall should continue across most of the state,” he says.
Stooksbury's declaration, along with the opinions of other weather experts, has prompted Georgia's Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to announce that a drought declaration will not be necessary this year in southwest Georgia's Lower Flint River Basin.
The EPD declared a severe drought in the Flint River Basin in 2001 and again in 2002, which activated the Flint River Drought Protection Act. The Act established a fund to compensate farmers in the Flint River Basin who voluntarily stop irrigating their crops with surface water during a severe drought year.
“There will not be a drought auction in 2003, so farmers in the Flint River Basin should plan to proceed with their regular spring planting routines,” says EPD Director Harold Reheis.
Georgia has received bountiful rainfall since the middle of September, he adds, and the September rains ended the short-term or agricultural drought in the state.
But for many row-crop farmers, the timing of the rainfall made a bad crop year even worse, he says. “The rains were too late to help most crops but delayed harvesting of cotton and peanuts. They also lowered the quality of cotton and pecans. The September rains did revive pastures and allowed cattle and dairy producers to save hay until the winter,” notes Stooksbury.
The plentiful rains that began in September continued through late December and into January. Many Georgia locations were nearly 10 inches below normal in yearly rainfall in early September. As of this writing, the yearly rainfall deficits almost have been eliminated.
“All major weather stations across Georgia ended 2002 with more than 90 percent of the normal yearly rainfall,” says Stooksbury. “As of Dec. 30, Athens was at 95.6 percent of normal, Atlanta at 94.7 percent, Augusta at 90.8 percent, Columbus at 89 percent, Macon at 89.6 percent and Savannah at 95 percent.”
Wet weather conditions throughout the fall and early winter mean that soils across Georgia are wet, says the climatologist. The National Climate Prediction Center's soil moisture model shows that the soil moisture across Georgia has an 80- to 90-percentile ranking. At the 80th percentile, soil moisture would be less in eight out of 10 years. At the 90th percentile, soil moisture would be less in nine out of 10 years.
Stream gauge records from the U.S. Geological Survey show normal to above-normal stream flows across the entire state, he adds. The lowest stream flows are in northeast Georgia, where flows are normal for this time of year, he says.
Lake levels statewide showed dramatic rises in December, says Stooksbury. In west Georgia, Lake Lanier has risen by more than 4 feet since December and is now at the above-normal level. The other major lakes in west Georgia — West Point, Walter F. George, Seminole, Allatoona and Carters — also are above normal.
In east Georgia, Lake Hartwell remains about 2 feet below normal while Russell and Clarks Hill lakes are slightly above normal for this time of year.
The only drought indicator that remains below normal in Georgia is groundwater level, says Stooksbury. “USGS monitoring wells in south Georgia are showing improving groundwater levels, but levels remain low. Unlike last winter, a good recharge of the groundwater is being recorded. With a continuation of good rainfall, groundwater levels should continue to recover through the spring.”
With the continuation of an El Nino weather pattern through this spring, Georgians can expect a continuation of recent weather patterns, according to the climatologist.
“Historically, an El Nino brings above-normal winter and spring rains across south Georgia and near-normal rains across most of north Georgia. Historically, the extreme northwest corner of the state experiences slightly below-normal winter and spring rainfall during an El Nino event.”
While the long-term drought is all but over, Georgians' conservation of the state's water still is needed, he says. “In the past 40 years, Georgia's population has more than doubled, and the state's growth has come with no increase in the water supply. Without an increase in the supply, water conservation now is a fact of life in Georgia. This growth is similar to that in Ireland in the 40 years before the great potato famine.”