can’t see the forest

Matchstick Country

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The Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama and southern Tennessee and other regions of Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas are experiencing some of the worst drought conditions in recorded history. The ‘big dry’ is especially harsh as a sequel to 2006, which was itself unusually dry throughout the South—but not this bad.stantis-drought.jpgThe drought is being felt most acutely in northern Alabama, where the U.S. Drought Monitor recently reported “exceptional” drought conditions and elevated the severity status to D4, the most extreme rating on the agency’s five-tier scale. The affected counties of Alabama form the only region of the United States currently at D4 status, and Alabama’s delegates to Congress are asking the Department of Agriculture to declare a state of emergency so that shattered farmers can be eligible for some form—any form—of federal aid.

Federal officials report that 78 percent of Alabama’s pastures are in poor or very poor condition. About half of the state’s peanut crop and about two thirds of its infamous cotton harvest are in jeopardy. Such dismal numbers so early in the year could spell unprecedented disaster for small farmers; refinancing land after last year’s slight returns was a popular move, and an even worse season this year will leave many planters with no easy outs.

“It’s the worst spring I’ve seen in thirty years in this business,” my father told me. He’s an agri-businessman in northwest Alabama, sharing stoically in the woes of the local farmers. “Every day I open my door, I’m losing money. No matter what.”

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The Dothan (Ala.) Eagle reports that the drought is impacting even the state’s illicit marijuana crops. State law enforcement officials say they’ve noticed significant decreases in confiscated plants and are finding more grow plots near ponds and streams.

Alabama state climatologist John Christy told south Mississippi’s Sun Herald that the period from January 2007 to the present is the driest such period recorded in Alabama in 114 years. Governor Bob Riley has asked citizens to conserve water whenever possible. While conservation is largely voluntary at present, the water authorities of a number of municipalities throughout the South have enforced bans on the watering of lawns and washing vehicles, and no-burn ordinances are in effect across much of the region. The drought is expected to increase in intensity throughout the summer, with the first strong potential of real relief forecast for September; by that time, water may be at a critical premium in some of the more dessicated areas.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest supplier of electricity in northern Alabama and most of Tennessee, is only able to generate at about 50 percent of capacity because of dry conditions. The Tennessee River reservoir system is being operated conservatively, with the smallest possible navigational flows and maximum retention.

The recent wildfires in Georgia and northern Florida blanketed much of the Southeast in a smoky haze for days. Even here in north Alabama, several hundred miles from the blazes, visibility was very poor and a persistent particulate fog lingered throughout the morning hours.

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