The drought of 1988 is hurting urban trees. It's been so severe, in fact, that several Midwestern cities are taking extra steps to try to minimize the damage. For example:
In Columbus, Ohio, three water trucks make daily rounds to help keep city's youngest trees alive.
Chicago Park District officials instituted an emergency watering plan earlier this summer, abandoning all other landscape activities to concentrate on the trees. One of their top priorities: saving the nation's largest grove of elm trees, found in downtown Grant Park, which are already threatened by Dutch elm disease.
In Kansas City, Mo., lack of rain has forced city crews to pull out 17 percent of the trees planted during the past fall and spring seasons. That's two to three times the normal rate of tree removals.
Drought doesn't necessarily kill trees, and its effects are not always immediately visible, scientists say. But the dryness does compound other complications, such as disease and insects, and can weaken the trees later. (Pennsylvania community aids its trees, Page 4).
``We are greatly concerned about the lag effect,'' says George Ware of the Morton Arboretum, a private foundation in suburban Chicago devoted to tree research. ``If conditions are reasonable we could see recovery. [But] a lot depends on 1989.''
But it's the urban tree that is the most vulnerable. Even under the best circumstances, they have a difficult time. Roots are cut to put in new sidewalks and driveways. Many trees are planted in poor, compacted soil and in confined areas where their roots can't collect enough moisture. And the water they do receive may be contaminated by insecticides and road salt.
Neglect is another problem.
``So many people just assume that their trees can take care of themselves,'' says Jack Low, a city forester for Columbus, Ohio. ``So they think about their flowers and their lawn and they forget about their trees.''
Adds Dr. Ware: ``Trees are taken for granted. [But] they're living things that can be clobbered.''
Volunteers have turned out to help protect the trees in some cities. In Chicago, up to 500 have phoned into the park district's hot line to find out how they could help. Still, the bulk of the work has fallen to city crews.
In a seven-week period this summer, Chicago crews watered 27,000 trees in more than 200 parks. To accomplish this, the park district came up with certain innovations. Instead of regular hoses, it is using 14-inch-wide plastic tubing to deliver huge amounts of water from fire hydrants or fire hoses to the trees.
When hydrants aren't available, crews have used ``aqua-trucks'' - two-ton dump trucks that the district has converted to carry water. A fire boat and tugboat were also brought in to water more than 1,250 trees.
Besides the American elms, park officials are also trying to save old and valuable tree specimens that, in many cases, would be irreplaceable if lost.
In Kansas City, it's the newly planted trees that are causing the most concern.
``We are losing quite a few trees on our boulevards,'' says John Terwilliger, an urban forester with the city. ``It's very devastating for us.''