Heat wave; US seeks ways to help sizzling farms, cities

In Sweetwater, Texas, water usage in recent days has been cut in half -- by mandate -- while officials hunt desperately for new supplies. Kansas City officials, meanwhile, wonder if air conditioning should be a legal right for tenants.

And farmers from North Dakota to Georgia are taking a new look at the latest advances in "dry land" agriculture.

As the three-week spell of triple-digit temperatures gets longer, the task grows more urgent to relieve the human suffering and reduce the vulnerability of farms and communities in dry areas.

"In some areas, it's getting critical. As a whole, it is not a disaster. the next two weeks will tell," reports Roger Sandman, a member of President Carter's team assembled to deal with the heat wave.

The National Weather Service forecasts more heat and little rain into mid-August for an ever-expanding area of the Midwest and South. The cause: a stagnant high pressure system.

This prospect of "more of the same" has prodded many officials into action. They are seeking ways to: dig more wells; import water greater distances; help farmers get by with less irrigation; and prevent any more heat-related fatalities (already over 1,000 nationwide) by making air conditioning more widely available.

For most people, the greatest hardship -- besides the strain of persistent temperatures in excess of 100 degrees F. -- has been higher-than-normal electric bills to keep air conditioners going full blast.

For the Hearne family of Rowlett, Texas, for instance, the monthly electric bill has doubled to $113, causing them to often retreat to a nearby lake even though "it feels like a hot tub," Mrs. Hearne says.

Utilities from the Tenessee Valley to western Texas have been experiencing record power demand. Adequate margins of electricity are still available, and power companies are offering special installment plans to customers hard-pressed to make payments.

The Carter administration ordered nearly $7 million for six states -- Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Kansas -- to help the poor and elderly obtain fans, meet electricity costs, or travel to community "cooling centers." Officials in many areas, such as Kansas City, were startled to discover that guidelines for landlords require only heating but not cooling for tenants.

"We have become accustomed to air conditioning and consider it a basic human right. If we rewrote the US Constitution, we would probably put that in," remarks Robert D. Miewald, a University of Nebraska political scientist.

The heat wave of 1980, which so far is being compared to 1954 conditions, is the first test for many booming Sunbelt areas of their dependency on large-scale air conditioning and shrinking ground water supplies.

The effect of the hot, dry spell could be most dramatic for US agriculture. At present, losses in livestock and crops are estimated to be well over $1 billion in Texas alone, so far the state hardest hit. Corn is at a critical pollination time.

"A good 75 percent of the corn and soybean crops could be damaged in next 10 days," says Lyle Denny, who puts together the federal Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin. Texas cotton will be in "drastic trouble" if the weather does not break soon. He warns that heat is causing the most damage now, but drought damage is expected to hit soon.

Yet, says Millard D. Hall, chairman of the 10-state Missouri River Basin Commission in Omaha, Neb., "The techonology is available now to grow crops on far less water than we normally use. We are growing corn in Nebraska on 15 inches whereas normally you would need about 30 inches to three acre-feet of irrigation water for corn."

Cotton-grower B. H. Piercy of Lubbock, Tex., plans to reduce irrigation on his 220 acres even more than he already has, partly because of the present drought. Last year, he closed four wells, which rely on the Midwest's Ogallala acquifer, because they had lost 25 percent of their capacity in the last five years. Using new tillage techniques and other innovative moisture-retaining practices, he has eliminated $150 monthly electric bills for irrigation pumping and still hopes to make 90 percent of his crop. "It's amazing the breakthroughs we had in recent years in the way that terraces are designed to keep rain," says Mr. Piercy.

In 1960, there were three acres of irrigated farm land to every one acre of dry-land farm- land around Lubbock. The ratio is now one-to- one and is projected to go to two dry-land acres for every irrigated one, say local agricultural officials.

"More farmers are trying the 'limited inputs' farming of less irrigation, less fertilizer, and less pesticides," reports Dr. Daniel C. Pfannstiel, director of extension services at Texas A & M University. One reason is high energy costs, and now the drought is expected to give a boost to the practice. Also called "less lush" agriculture, dry-land farming relies on fresh-out-of-the-lab techniques, such as chemicals to retard plant water evaporation, genetic alterations for faster growth, and "minimum or no-till" cultivation techniques.

"We've gotton awfully irrigation crazy in the last few years. Water is not an unlimited resource. Even when there is enough, the heat can draw down supplies," warns Mr. Sandman, who is emergency aid coordinator for US Secretary of Agriculture Bon Bergland.

Looking at their limited water supplies, farmers in the irrigated sections of Nebraska, KansaS, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas have turned their eyes on Wyoming water and on the Lake Oahe reservoir in South Dakota. Such massive water diversion would be technically possible, according to Kansas hydrologist Thomas McClain, but would be politically impossible because of high costs and competing interests, such as coal and oil projects.

Dr. David Campbell of the US Water Resources Council in Washington argues that water demand, water loss, and water waste must be reduced first. He stresses that the new dry-land farmer benefits doubly -- by cuting water pumping costs and reducing vulnerability to drought.

Less federal aid for water projects under President Carter has put pressure on states and communities to fund their own. Presently, there is a backlog of $ 38 billion of uncompleted federal water projects, says Dan Beard, deputy assistant secretary in the land and water resources division of the US Department of the Interior. "We need to look at the demand side first," he says.

Professor Leo Beard, director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, Austin, believes people should not be denied the opportunity to live in the pleasant climates of the Sunbelt. "Water can be transported economically, and because of the amount of sun in the region, Sunbelt acreage can be watered to produce several crops a year -- an agricultural benefit not to be denied." He does not think mining ground water is a good idea -- it is being drawn down at a greater rate than it is being replaced.

Should the water situation be allowed to limit growth? "Not at the present time. We have analyzed the situation for a 50-year period, and we can provide the water. The secret is getting these dams built," says Seth Burnitt of the Texas Department of Water Reservoirs. Also contributing to this report were staff correspondent Jonathan Harsch and staff writer Ruth Walker.m

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