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Great Lakes Article:

Devastating drought brings despair to much of US


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - They were praying for rain at the St. Patrick parish church in Grand Rapids, Ohio this week.

With hands clasped and eyes cast downward, about 100 desperate farmers and rural residents gathered at the church on Wednesday to seek divine intervention in an extended drought in Ohio and much of the United States that is fast becoming one of the worst in the last century.

"None of us have control over whether it is going to rain or not," said Sister Christine Pratt, rural life director for the Catholic Diocese of nearby Toledo. "But the people are praying for one another and there is some hope."

Drought has taken a grip on more than half of the United States, experts calculate. Twenty-six states are suffering severe drought conditions and "exceptional drought" - the worst level of drought measured - has blanketed thirteen states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

In a typical year, drought hits 10 percent to 12 percent of the country.

"It is pretty dire," said Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center. "We're seeing agricultural impacts...We have a lot of hydrological problems with wells and reservoirs and streams going dry. This is going to total billions of dollars when it is all said and done."

From southern California to South Carolina and from Montana to New Mexico, individuals and industries are suffering.

Richard Spera, owner of Canal Lakes Resort in South Carolina, is one of thousands of operators of recreational businesses, like marinas, restaurants, and lodges, who has watched his income drop along with lake levels.

"The drought has been knocking a hole in our economics," he said. "We don't have enough water."


Crops wither in heat-baked fields, and ranchers have sold off herds rather than let them starve for lack of pasture.

"I have never seen it like this and I'm 60 years old," said Richard Traylor, who owns 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) in Texas and New Mexico but has sold off much of his cattle herd.

Tourism has also been hit as the drought turned state and national parks into kindling. So far this year, wildfires have scorched more than 4.6 million acres (1.9 million hectares), twice the average acreage burned in the previous decade.

There is a scramble for new water sources as town and city residents are urged to stop watering lawns and washing cars.

In Monticello, Georgia, south of Atlanta, officials this week banned all outside watering, saying creek levels were so low that the area could run out of water in 30 to 45 days.

National estimates for drought-related losses are still being tallied, with agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture waiting for harvesting of corn and soybean and other key crops to conclude before loss figures are compiled. This summer's wheat harvest underscored the devastation as production fell to the lowest levels in nearly 30 years.

In Nebraska, experts have pegged the losses at more than $1.4 billion. "It is really, really awful," said Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns. "Even some of the folks who lived through the 'dust bowl' years will say it is as bad as it has ever been," he said referring to a severe drought in the 1930s.

In Colorado, Denver's water reservoirs hit a historic low on July 1, at only 66 percent full. And this month, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens signed into law a bill creating a $1 million emergency drought fund so farmers and ranchers can buy water.

State leaders are clamoring for Washington to allocate disaster aid. Though the scope of assistance needed has not been determined, some call for more than $5 billion.


A key factor in the water shortage is the lack of adequate snowpack in the mountains. Melting snow from higher elevations usually feeds rivers and streams, but this year, snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains were only a quarter of normal levels - one of lowest on record, said Douglas LeComte, a drought specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lack of rain is the other obvious factor. In Dodge City, Kansas, rainfall over the 14 months ending in July amounted to the driest period since 1952-53.

The water shortages are prompting battles between upstream and downstream states and between individuals and businesses.

In Jasper County, South Carolina, more than 100 people turned out last week for a meeting with state officials after a drop in an underground aquifer left them without water. Rural residents blamed business operators for using too much water.

North and South Carolina are fighting over North Carolina's refusal to release water from its reservoirs downstream. "People are battling for water like we've never seen before," said Hope Mizzell, South Carolina's drought program coordinator.

This year's drought is the extension of more than two years of very dry conditions in many states, said LeComte. Some areas are experiencing their fifth consecutive year of drought.

The conditions are near those seen during the country's most devastating drought in the 1930s - the "dust bowl" years, when some 60 percent of the United States was affected.

Global warming, changing weather patterns, bad land management and many other factors are involved in the debate over what caused the current drought. But right now the focus is more on when it will end.

"We need to recharge the water supply," said Svoboda. "Just about every part of the country needs a good wet winter.

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