Disruptions of a new Dust Bowl

Even cactuses are thirsty and fish can't spawn as severe dryness hits US.

In Florida, the shorelines of Lake Okeechobee, the state's "liquid heart," have receded as much as 150 feet, marooning docks and leaving alligators dead in the bullrushes.

In Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, much of Jackson Lake, one of the most photographed bodies of water in the world, may have to be drained to provide relief for drought-stricken potato farmers in Idaho.

In Washington, dry conditions are causing early glacial melting on Mount Rainier, spawning rock slides.

One of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is gripping much of the US - hurting farmers, scaring firefighters, and forcing water restrictions from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Midland, Texas. In parts of the Southwest, it's so dry the cactuses need watering.

The flint-dry conditions now encompass a full one-third of the United States. While that is still far less than during the Dust Bowl - which, at its peak, affected two-thirds of the country - the depth and breadth of the current dry spell is causing widespread social and economic disruption.

"We are always going to have droughts," says Michael Hayes, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "But the fact that so much of the country is involved does make this one significant."

Currently, the two most affected areas in the US are the Northwest and the Southeast - each with their own set of problems. Parts of northern New England and south and west Texas are also suffering.

Aggravating the situation is the length of the drought. Florida, for instance, is entering its fourth year of what is being called one of the worst dry spells on record.

Growth is surely a contributing factor to the state's dwindling water supplies, but nature takes most of the blame. Dry conditions over the past three years have caused a 51-inch rainfall deficit.

The dearth is impacting everything from tourism at Disney World (where smoke has obscured the theme park) to sugar cane growers to the hue of peoples' backyards.

Perhaps worst is the fire danger. Already, some 2,900 blazes have charred more than 260,000 acres since January. In the past three years, more than 1.1 million acres have been burned.

"This drought is as bad as it's ever been in history, especially when you relate it to how many people live here now as opposed to 50 years ago," says Jim Loftus with Florida's Division of Emergency Management.

Some of the effects are more subtle. Around Lake Okeechobee, the largest body of fresh water in the US outside the Great Lakes, sale of fishing tackle is down.

Elsewhere, tiny bark beetles are chewing through thousands of acres of pine forests, targeting trees weakened by lack of ground water. Black bears, scavenging for food, are dying along the state's roadways in record numbers.

Local officials are doing what they can to husband water supplies. Millions of homeowners in south and central Florida are under orders not to water their lawns more than twice a week. In Tampa, the fine for a first violation is $100.

Local officials are also trying to educate residents about ways to conserve. Consider just one factoid: Covering an average swimming pool can save 1,000 gallons a month from evaporation. Florida's only relief may now lie in another peculiarity of the calendar - hurricane season.

No snow pack

The Pacific Northwest doesn't have that kind of precipitation to look forward to. The area's main source of water comes during the winter, meaning the parched landscape must wait for months.

"There's not much opportunity for relief in that area," says Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the US Department of Agriculture. "They're going to have to rely on what little snow they had and wait until the next rainy season."

That's already proving problematic. At Crater Lake in Oregon, the snowpack that usually measures 80 inches this time of year is already completely melted.

Indeed, climatologists say the Northwest, suffering its second worst drought since 1895, is their biggest concern at the moment. Water is in short supply and high demand, especially with the current electricity crisis.

Hydroelectric plants are competing against farmers and conservationists for water in the rivers - many of which are now mere rivulets. The Yellowstone River, for instance, is running at a 40-year low. It's so depleted that the paddlefish have been unable to swim upstream to spawn.

In nearby Montana, a dozen large rivers are in differing stages of trouble, including several that are premier fly-fishing destinations - something that brings millions of dollars into local economies. Farmers and ranchers, who need the water for irrigation, are fighting with tourism promoters and biologists trying to leave enough water for the fish.

Talk these days - echoed at meetings of the governor's Drought Task Force - is that unless rains come, fishing could either be restricted or shut down on certain rivers by mid-summer. Last summer, forest fires in Montana forced the closure of all public lands to recreation.

"We're far drier than we were last year at this time," says Jess Aber, a water expert with the Montana Department of Natural Resource and Conservation.

Forecasts for stream flows, soil-moisture readings, and reservoir-storage projections are all worse than last year. Already, every county in Montana has been classified as being severely drought-affected. "People are getting anxious," says Mr. Aber.

Why the dry spell

While farmers, ranchers, and golf courses are struggling to cope, scientists are looking at their computer printouts for reasons for the drought - and its duration. El Nino and La Nina climate patterns are often cited.

But researchers are also looking at history. Some experts believe the Dust Bowl fell under a stronger yet less well-known weather pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, an El Nino-like occurrence that hit North America particularly hard. Some experts believe the US is now experiencing the effects of a similar phenomenon.

If there's anything good in the current drought, it that it's spurring a greater sense of readiness. States have begun drafting drought mitigation plans, increased monitoring, and improved coordination among agencies. "Before the drought of 1998, officials had no capability to capture lessons learned," says Dr. Hayes. "We had many, many years of states running around trying to reinvent the wheel."

Sam Simmons is relying on his own wits to get through the dry spell. The south Texas farmer has replaced his water-intensive crops, such as sugar cane and vegetables, with cotton and grain sorghum. Even so, he's struggling.

"I hope I'm not losing a whole lot," he says. "I don't like to think about it."

Reported by Todd Wilkinson in Bozeman, Mont., Jennifer LeClaire in Winter Haven, Fla., and staff writer Kris Axtman in Austin, Texas. Written by Ms. Axtman.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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