Farmers pray for umbrella weather

Much of the US is facing the worst drought in a century, especially the West

– High plains rancher Bill Lassey recently made a pilgrimage that nature hadn't allowed him to repeat for 67 years: He walked across the Yellowstone River and barely got wet.

Normally, fording the storied river's girth as it flows here through the eastern part of North Dakota would require a boat, but Mr. Lassey needed only a pair of worn galoshes.

"I never thought I'd see the Yellowstone so low again in my lifetime," says the rancher, recalling his childhood in the 1930s Dust Bowl era.

The languid condition of the Yellowstone – the longest free-flowing river in the US – is symbolic of a worsening dry spell that, for large swathes of the country, is shaping up to be the worst drought of the past 100 years.

From Georgia to Maine, officials are issuing water conservation measures as blue skies across the East Coast continue to show little sign of impending snowfall or rain. It's not the only region declared to be in a state of "severe" or "extreme" drought. In the croplands of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, wheat-crop ratings are being graded as "very poor" by state agriculture boards due to drought-stress conditions. Other regions are feeling the effects too.

• New Jersey, which has just experienced the driest February on record, has instituted drought restrictions such as banning car washing and forbidding restaurants to serve water to customers unless it is requested.

• Boat launch ramps at Lake Marburg in Codorous State Park, Harrisburg, Pa., have been closed as the water levels across the state continue to sink as if someone had pulled a bath plug.

• The Los Angeles Times reports that drought conditions in the wild are encouraging coyotes to venture into L.A.'s hillside neighborhoods.

Few areas of the country, however, are struggling as much as the "inner West." Five consecutive years of drought have been nearly invisible to outsiders, yet devastating to locals, who see no relief in sight.

"This is turning out to be a staggering event for a lot of rural people and communities," says Jess Aber, who sits on a special drought task force created by Montana's governor. "Before the drought, there were many towns sliding downward because of the challenging economics of agriculture, but now they're being pushed over a precipice."

Declining numbers of farms

Not long ago, a group of county commissioners from Montana's "Golden Triangle" wheat-growing belt, which stretches across north central Montana, warned that ripple effects could be far- reaching. Last year, the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service reported that there were 1,000 fewer farms in the state than the year before.

Community woes

Small-town economies that anchored the state's $1 billion agriculture industry are also drying up. Lower crop yields mean farmers can't pay off bank debt and, in turn, are unable to secure loans for necessary supplies, machinery, and pick-up trucks. "Auto dealerships and implement stores, which were the anchors of these communities, are going under," Aber says.

In an effort to maintain financial solvency, ranchers in a large portion of the heartland covering thousands of square miles are dramatically cutting back the size of their cattle herds. Auction yards, which usually do brisk winter business with bull sales, for example, are finding few buyers, forcing owners to sell the animals at hugely discounted prices.

While Mr. Lassey never believed the Yellowstone would again be reduced to a trickle, the talkative agrarian admits that most of his life he had no reason to incorporate the words "El Niño" or "La Niña" into his provincial vocabulary either.

But the increasing regularity of those weather phenomena – both linked to the warming of the Pacific Ocean – is causing Lassey's younger neighbors to worry about the potential onslaught of another ominous threat: global warming.

The National Weather Service recently announced that the past three months formed the warmest documented stretch of winter weather in 120 years of modern record keeping.

In Montana, it's also been the driest period Roy Kaiser has witnessed in his 26 years as a water-supply specialist with the US Department of Agriculture. "I always use the example of a sponge. You've got to get it wet before it will soak up water," Kaiser says. "In many places, the fields are so dry and hard that water runs off the surface of the soil like it would from a sheet of asphalt."

The paradox, Kaiser says, is that even as the snowpack continues to build to average depths in the Western mountains, the flows it generates in the spring will not be nearly enough to alleviate drought.

El Niño: no end in sight

Unfortunately, with the National Weather Service predicting another El Niño weather pattern forming in the Pacific, many agrarians have literally been brought to their knees – in prayer vigils and in asking for mercy from banks.

The reason: The current drought began with the last El Niño cycle which causes flooding for some parts of the country but left others parched.

Not only that, forestry officials blame El Niño for bringing intense summer heat, strong winds, and lack of precipitation that created the epic wildfire season of 2000 which left millions of acres of forests and grasslands burned in the West.

Farmers, ranchers, even suburban residents watching their groundwater wells dry up in places like Bozeman and Helena, Mont., need a deluge of rain.

Bracing for the worst, Montana Gov. Judy Martz has notified Agriculture Secretary Ann Venneman that she may ask the Bush administration to declare her state a drought disaster area in the months ahead.

Back in Cartwright, Mr. Lassey holds out hope that the big river that passes through his land will regain its formidable sparkle.

"We've had some tough times over the years, but we're tough people and we always find a way to get through," he says. "The only difference is that there might be fewer of us left out here when the drought finally breaks."

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