South's ill-timed drought may further crimp U.S. economy
The region's booming growth has counterbalanced trouble elsewhere. But the long dry spell is taking a toll.
Johnny Whitt, a soft-spoken skateboarder, grinned just thinking about his summertime ritual of going to the pool with his friend, Rowan O'Halloran, to hang out and cool off. But when informed that Georgia may be closing swimming pools at the height of "the sticky season," Johnny's happy face soured.Skip to next paragraph
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"That's a bad idea," he says. "It's too hot around here in the summer to go without the pool."
Bad idea or not, the possibility of widespread pool closings this summer shows that the southeast's drought – a dry spell of historic note making worldwide headlines – is disrupting everything from kids' comfort to some of the region's key industries.
Moreover, how the South responds to the improbably dry weather may affect the broader US economy, since the region's booming metro areas and job growth have so far fended off a national recession.
"The coincidence of having [potential] recession plus drought is a tough one for the economy," says Jeff Humphreys, an economist at the University of Georgia in Athens. "It's coming on top of the housing recession and the oil price shock, making our economy more vulnerable than would otherwise be the case. I don't think the drought alone is able to produce a recession, but it adds to negative forces that are already out there."
And on it drags, as recent rains have failed to refresh exhausted reservoirs. As an unusual bank of fronts in the West channeled the South's usual rains into deluges in Texas and the Midwest, the drought interfered with rural baptisms and put landscapers out of work, with losses in that industry totaling nearly $1 billion. A pool ban alone would wreck Georgia's $150 million pool-maintenance industry, experts say.
"The economic impact of long-term water shortages could be profound because water is so central to daily living, power generation, and manufacturing," noted a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Some nuclear power plants in the Southeast, which require huge amounts of water to operate, could be forced to throttle back or temporarily shut down later this year because drought is drying up the rivers and lakes used to cool the reactors, the Associated Press reported last month. Such shutdowns probably wouldn't cause blackouts, utility officials say. But they could lead to shockingly higher electric bills for millions of Southerners, because the region's utilities could be forced to buy expensive replacement power from other energy companies.
As governors prayed for rain, North Carolina horse breeders began shipping hay in from Canada, because hay prices in the United States have doubled, even tripled in some places. From soybean farms facing irrigation bans to car-wash joints hawking "guiltless" waterless washes, the drought is on everybody's mind.