Drought leaves flint-dry farms, a meager Mississippi

Cities, states, and the US government plan to keep America permanently drought-prepared

The Mississippi River runs from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in one unbroken ribbon. But when Tom Miller walks out of his office at Melvin Price Locks and Dam, he sees two rivers.

Upstream, the Mississippi rolls high and proud, thanks to an intricate system of reservoirs and dams that controls water levels all the way to St. Paul, Minn. Downstream, the river flows free - and low - all the way to New Orleans. "There's not a lot of water down there," he says.

It's a potent reminder of the drought that grips large swaths of the Midwest and South. If rain doesn't come, city residents and rural farmers could be hit hard this summer from Florida to central Nebraska.

The dryness is already causing another change. Instead of treating drought as a periodic emergency, some cities and states are enacting permanent drought-preparedness programs. And a federal commission next week is scheduled to finalize its report calling for what is thought to be the nation's first-ever permanent program targeting drought.

Such moves represent a new approach to water management nationwide. While the reforms could force consumers and businesses alike to limit their use of water at the first signs of long-term dryness, they could also keep regions from lurching into periodic and severe water crises.

"We can reduce this nation's vulnerability to the impacts of drought, and thus reduce the need for emergency relief, by making preparedness the cornerstone of national drought policy," says the commission's draft report.

A final version of the report will be presented to President Clinton and Congress next month.

Out across America, how dry it is depends on where you stand.

*In Frederick, Md., last year's drought has abated, but the city hasn't fully recovered yet. Water supplies are so squeezed that one subdivision has forbidden new construction, and residents can be fined $50 for washing cars.

*Even after abundant rains last winter and spring, all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties remain under a drought watch, and state officials are considering full-time drought preparedness.

*Central Florida has slipped in and out of drought over the past several years, so water-management officials are asking residents to water their lawns only once a week and restaurants not to serve ice water except on request.

The drought hasn't affected many farmers so far this year, but that's because most haven't put in their crops yet.

"They've still got a good month or better to plant," says John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau. Dry soil conditions in the central and northern parts of the state mean they don't have water reserves.

Timely rains this spring and summer could produce a good harvest, he adds. But long-range forecasts suggest below-normal moisture through fall.

For now, the immediate burden is falling on towns and cities that rely on wells or lakes.

"We're hoping for the best but preparing for the worst," says Rae Williams, supervisor of consumer services for the city-owned utility of Springfield, Ill.

Lake Springfield, the city's main source of water, remains six feet below its normal level. The utility is preparing to ask the city council to invoke a first stage of water restrictions with limits on such activities as lawn-watering and filling swimming pools.

Some states, such as New Mexico and Nebraska, have instituted permanent drought-mitigation efforts. Last year, for example, Kentucky endured its driest July-to-September period in more than a century. But thanks to its drought-management program, its water systems didn't need outside help.

Such examples are fueling proposals at the national level. "We usually respond to adversity; then it rains and we go back to our normal thing," says Leona Dittus, executive director of the National Drought Policy Commission. "But a lot of people don't stop and realize that we may not have an overabundance of water forever."

In some ways, the Mississippi River illustrates the success - and limits - of drought mitigation. "We're really not going to have a problem with navigation above the locks and dams," says Dave Busse, senior water-control manager for the St. Louis District of the US Army Corp of Engineers. But from Alton, Ill., south to New Orleans, there are no dams that allow engineers to directly affect water levels.

Already, the St. Louis gauge is setting April lows never seen since records started being kept at the start of the Civil War. And if levels fall further, the Army Corps can dredge shallow sections and require barges to limit their loads. But next winter, when the Corps is supposed to reduce the Missouri River's flow to recharge its huge reservoirs upstream, the situation could become a problem, officials say.

"Mitigation ... has become a hot topic in the United States," says Cody Knutson, water resources specialist for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. But "no matter what you do, you're not going to completely avoid an impact."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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