Late June and early July brought a few scattered showers to the parched lower Southeast, but the long-term prognosis isn’t good for farmers in the region, says David Stooksbury, state climatologist for the University of Georgia.

The climate outlook for July, August and September, shows some hope that we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but this is based on the possibility of tropical weather systems and probably won’t occur until after mid-August, said Stooksbury, speaking at the Drought Management for Forage/Livestock Producers Workshop held in late June in Tifton, Ga.

“In the short-term, we’ll have minimal relief from scattered afternoon thunderstorms. But even if we have normal weather over the next few weeks, that will not recharge the system due evaporation. Our soils will continue to dry and streams and groundwater levels will continue to drop. Right now, I’m leaning towards it being warmer than normal and drier than normal in the coming weeks. We need an active tropical system that will impact the United States,” he says.

Drought conditions continue to intensify across most of Georgia, says Stooksbury. Since the end of May, conditions in the southern two-thirds of the state have deteriorated from extreme to exceptional drought, the highest drought category. Portions of northwest Georgia have now entered moderate drought conditions.

All counties in Georgia south of Harris, Talbot, Upson, Pike, Lamar, Monroe, Jasper, Putnam, Hancock, Warren, McDuffie and Lincoln counties, inclusive, are either in extreme or exceptional drought.

Soil moisture levels in the extreme and exceptional drought counties are between the first and fifth percentiles, says Stooksbury. At the first percentile, the soils in late June would have more moisture 99 out of 100 years. At the fifth percentile, the soils would have more moisture 95 out of 100 years.

Streams flows across the southern half of the state also are extremely low. Daily record-low flows are occurring along Pachitla Creek near Edison, the Flint River at Newton, Spring Creek near Iron City, the Alapaha River near Alapha and at Statenville, the Satilla River near Waycross, the Ocmulgee River at Lumber City and at Doctortown, Black Creek near Blitchton, and the Ogeechee River near Eden.

Groundwater levels in the Coastal Plain are at or near record-low levels for all long-term monitoring wells. Some communities in the region are drilling deeper wells to maintain water supplies.

Stooksbury says the drought conditions being seen in Georgia now have been in the making for several months.

“Last summer, late in the summer and into the fall, we just didn’t receive the rainfall we needed,” he says. “Much of the rainfall during this time of the year comes from tropical weather systems. While the tropics were very active last summer, none of the storms affected Georgia.”

The state went from abnormally dry to extremely dry from July to August of last year. By late September of 2011, moderate drought conditions were being seen across the southern quarter of the state while remainder of the state was abnormally dry, he says.

“In late October, the rains still were not coming from the tropics, and the Southeast really started to be impacted. By November, most of the state of Georgia was in moderate drought and the southern portion of the state was in a severe drought.”

Half normal rainfall

By late May, says Stooksbury, many parts of the state were receiving half the normal rainfall for an extended period, with the Coastal Plain region of Georgia being in an extreme drought by late May. The most recent ratings are showing exceptional drought in the southwest region of the state and inching into Alabama and Florida. The remainder of the Coastal Plain is in extreme drought.

“That’s how we got to this point,” he says. “Much of the Southern Piedmont and the Coastal Plain has received less than 70 percent of normal rainfall since Oct. 1, 2010. Over the last 60 days, much of southwest Georgia has received less between 50 percent, and in some areas, less than 20 percent, of normal rainfall.”

According to the final U.S. Drought Monitor report for the month of June, beneficial rainfall ranging from 2 to 5 inches have improved drought conditions in north Alabama, north Georgia and extreme northwest South Carolina.

However, long-term precipitation deficits remained in the region. During the past six months, the area is 15 inches or more behind normal along coastal Alabama and Mississippi and parts of southern Florida, and rainfall deficits of 20 inches or more are widespread for the past 12 months. 

Hot temperatures through late June resulted in continued above-normal evaporation, with maximum temperatures in the 90s and low 100s, setting new records in some locations.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that the lack of rainfall has resulted in extremely low river and creek levels, with many wells going dry, and this has begun to impact southwest Georgia water utilities that rely on groundwater. 

Dry weather and hot temperatures have ravaged crops, with a fourth to half of several crops (corn, cotton, peanuts, sorghum and soybeans) rated in poor to very poor condition across several Southeast states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina).  The hard soils and hot temperatures have made successful sprouting of seed difficult and, due to lack of forage, farmers are sending cattle to feedlots or selling cattle.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has declared 22 drought-stricken counties in Georgia as disaster areas. With the USDA Secretarial Disaster Designation, Georgia farmers will be able to apply for emergency loans and other benefits to ease losses.

“Secretary Vilsack went above and beyond our request, naming an additional 26 counties as contiguous disaster counties,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia who is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I am thankful these drought-stricken counties in Georgia will have access to the aid they need to bounce back from this unfortunate situation. Now we need rain.”

The counties that will become eligible to apply for emergency loans and other benefits provided by the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 are Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Ben Hill, Brantley, Brooks, Bryan, Chatham, Coffee, Colquitt, Cook, Dodge, Effingham, Irwin, Jeff Davis, Lanier, Lowndes, Pierce, Telfair, Thomas, Wayne and Wheeler.

Vilsack also wrote that he is naming the following areas as contiguous disaster counties: Berrien, Bleckley, Bulloch, Camden, Charlton, Clinch, Echols, Evans, Glynn, Grady, Laurens, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Mitchell, Montgomery, Pulaski, Screven, Tattnall, Tift, Toombs, Treutlen, Turner, Ware, Wilcox and Worth

Like those in primary disaster counties, farmers in contiguous disaster counties may be considered for assistance under the Farm Service Agency (FSA). This includes FSA emergency loans and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments program. Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the secretarial disaster declaration to apply for emergency loan assistantance.

Farmers may contact their local FSA office for more information.

phollis@farmpress.com