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Great Lakes Article:

Current U.S. Drought May Rival Dust Bowl

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 3, 2002; Page A01

LOS ANGELES -- From east to west, the countryside is as brown as toast. The rich loam of the Great Plains is crazed with cracks. In South Texas, they're saying it's as hot as a skillet on a stove in hell.

Stressed-out scrub jays in the Arizona pinyon forests have abandoned their young. Razorback suckers are stalled at the shuttered fish ladders along the Gunnison River in Colorado, dying for snow that never fell.

The California Poppy Reserve closed early for lack of blooms. The Kansas corn is pitiful. The Montana cows were sold. New Mexico river rafters have no river left to raft, and at the marinas around Lake Mead, they've had to move the docks a quarter-mile to reach the water's ever-retreating edge.

While the wildfires roaring across a dozen western states have received most of the attention, the conflagrations are only a symptom of a more insidious and lingering natural phenomenon: The nation is in deep drought.

"It is triple what we might see in an average year," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

In a typical year, about 15 percent of the country might be experiencing drought. Now, more than 40 percent of the country is suffering. The worst recent drought, in July 1988, covered 36 percent of the nation; the worst of the Dust Bowl years was 1934, when in July 65 percent of the country baked.

Today, the entire West, with the exception of Washington state, is bone dry. Drought that experts refer to as "exceptional" and "extreme" has seized the Four Corners states. The borderlands in Texas along the Rio Grande are rated "D-4,", which is as bad as it gets (although the central part of the state is reeling from four days of biblical rains). Parts of New England and the mid-Atlantic states are in drought, too.

The Washington area suffered through six straight months of below-average rainfall from September 2001 to February 2002, and despite some promising June showers, a moderate drought persists in the region. Central Maryland communities have been under mandatory restrictions on lawn watering since April.

In Baltimore, city officials turned off the hydrant sprinklers in inner-city neighborhoods to conserve water. Things are so dry in Roanoke, where the Carvins Cove reservoir has dropped more than 25 feet below capacity, that city officials have forbidden residents to refill their backyard pools and hot tubs. In fact, a hot zone stretches from southern Virginia through the Carolinas to central Georgia.

"We have never seen such harsh drought conditions this early in the summer," said Woody Yonts, chairman of the North Carolina Drought Monitoring Council, who reported that 80 percent of the state's streams are running at less than 10 percent of their normal flow.

Yonts is talking about running out of water -- in North Carolina.

"This is a serious drought, not unprecedented, but we still have the hottest two months to go," Svoboda said. "It could get worse."

The climatologist also pointed out that this drought has lasted three or four years in many areas, even five in some, and that the global meteorological patterns appear to favor continuing dryness.

This spring was the driest in 107 years of data-gathering in Colorado, and the second-driest in Arizona and Southern California. Nebraska just weathered the hottest and driest June on record. New England, along with New York and New Jersey, just had its warmest year.

Droughts, of course, are as natural as summer wildfires -- and hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

In North America, droughts are caused primarily by La Niña winters -- seasons when warmer waters disappear along the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Three consecutive La Niña winters have brought less wet weather to the United States and pushed the jet stream to the north. That means less precipitation overall.

While some meteorologists see signs that the pattern could reverse, forecasters are divided.

The effects of drought are often hard to measure. An earthquake is over in seconds. A hurricane lasts for hours, maybe a few days. Droughts are measured in years, sometimes decades.

The estimated cost of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was $25 billion to $33 billion. The 1988-89 drought in the Midwest cost $40 billion. Droughts wreak havoc in myriad ways. In the past, droughts were felt most keenly in farming and ranching communities. But today, with such boomtowns as Phoenix and Las Vegas rising in the desert, a few years of drought can suddenly put cities at risk of running out of water.

"First the drought, then come the fires. That's all anybody in the West is talking about," said Bill Blackstock, an outfitter with Far Flung Adventures in Taos, N.M., which runs river rafting trips on the Rio Grande and Rio Chama.

Blackstock said most of the outdoor recreation companies are hurting, booking only about 30 percent of their usual clientele.

"The outfitters are getting ready to apply for disaster relief," he said. The Rio Grande will barely float a raft. The Rio Chama has some water but is off-limits: The surrounding Santa Fe National Forest is closed because of fear of fire.

While it was once just a slice of the rural economies, recreation now often rivals agriculture in importance. At the Navajo Nation in Arizona, tribal officials are blaming the dry weather for a 50 percent decrease in tourists.

In Montana, they've been living with drought for four years. "Our ranchers have made as many management adjustments as they could, but it gets to the point where you just have no grass left," said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Pilcher estimates that about 300,000 head of cattle have left the state because of drought. In the hardest-hit counties, such as Liberty and Tule, some ranchers have liquidated their entire herds. That's like selling the farm, Pilcher said.

Part of the state was blessed with a giant storm three weeks ago that dumped as much as four feet of snow on lands around Glacier National Park. "It killed 3,000 head of cattle," Pilcher said. "But we needed the precipitation."

In the western parts of Nebraska and Kansas, the wheat would typically reach a tall farmer's belt buckle. "But our plants come to about your knee," said Kimball County extension agent Karen DeBoer in Nebraska. The harvest will begin in a few weeks, but grain yields are expected to be half of normal.

"I heard one of the specialists from the university saying the other day that a lot of farmers won't make enough money from the sale to pay for their harvest," DeBoer said.

There is a white bathtub ring around man-made Lake Mead where the waves of the great artificial sea used to lap; water levels have dropped 20 to 30 feet.

"Even though the lake is down because of the drought, it's still tremendous," said Bob Clark, a vice president of operations at Lake Mead Resort and Marina. Yet the lake's 550-mile shoreline has been reduced by about 10 percent, and boat ramps keep closing around the lake because they no longer reach the water.

Melinda Kassen of Trout Unlimited said the Delores River in the southwest corner of Colorado requires 78 cubic feet of dam-released water per second to maintain the state-mandated "minimum necessary to preserve natural environment to a reasonable degree." The Delores, almost a blue-ribbon trout stream, is now running at 15 cubic feet per second at the dam.

"The fish can't run and they can't hide," Kassen said. And so what happens to them? "They poach," she said. "Literally."

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