Rain helps parched wheat fields, low reservoirs, but more needed

Thirsty wheat fields in the Great Plains and thirsty cities in the Northeast share a serious concern about the amount of moisture nature might supply over the next few weeks.

Despite recent rain and snow that brought New York's reservoir system up to 65 percent of capacity and doused Texas and Oklahoma, the National Weather Service says the March water supply will continue below normal for most of the nation.

In Kansas, the largest producer of wheat in the United States, winter wheat crops have been stunded by the acute lack of rain.

Dr. Ed Kanemasu, professor of agronomy of Kansas State University, says, "We've had warm weather a month sooner than expected, and the plants are growing. The need water, and certain areas are still lacking. Each day without rain gets dimmer and dimmer."

The recent moisture to western Kansas has brightened farmers hopes, he says, but significantly more rainfall will be needed even to provide an average wheat crop.

He says fields in Kansas near Garden City, Tribune, and Colby have "a very poor stand of wheat, not many plants per ground unit." The winter wheat, planted deep because of the dry conditions, never broke through the soil.

A 10 percent decrease in the state's annual crop yield of 350 million bushels of wheat would cost farmers at least $1 billion, he says. "But if there is no rain, we're talking about much bigger losses."

In the grain-producing Texas panhandle the drought is responsible for severe losses of wheat pasture for cattle, says G. B. Thompson, director of research for the Texas A & M University center at Amarillo. "Economic losses could run into the millions of dollars because of the lack of rain," Dr. Thompson says. "Right now we need some good root growth as we approach our windy season, so that we don't lose the wheat stands altogether."

However, Norton Strommen, chief meteorologist with the World Food and Agricultural Outlook and Situation Board at the USDA says, "The next six-to-eight weeks are going to have a very important impact on how much wheat is produced. Forecasts are calling for median precipitation for the major portion of wheat belt.That would put it into an optimistic picture."

Meanwhile, in New England experts say that if rain and snow deficits continue for another year, most of the region will

experience water shortages similar to those now being felt in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

A wet February brought short-term relief to the Northeast, increasing reservoir levels in the Upper Delawae River Basin to 55 to 80 percent of capacity, according to the National Weather Service.

Overall, precipitation in the region has been down an average of 20 percent since November 1979, according to the New England River Basins Commission.

In a briefing paper, the commission warned that changes in the region since the last drought in the 1960s will make the next one more diffucult to manage:

* New England has 17 percent more people overall, ranging from a 51 percent increase in New Hampshire to 10 to 11 percent increases in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. More people means more water use.

* There is less slack in the industrial sector. Industries have cut back water use in response to the government pollution control program initiated in the 1970s.

* There is less reserve capacity in many water supply systems and fewer emergency sources on which to rely. Many ground-water aquifers have been covered by new buildings.

Jose Marrero, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, syas, "Some relief is here for the Northeast, but the situa" tion still warrants attention. Reserve levels could peak and go back down again just like the interest rates."

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