Warm, dry winter forecast for Georgia

Drought expected to spread

hduncan@macon.comNovember 18, 2011 

Middle Georgia, already suffering an extreme drought, is in for a warm, dry winter. That’s what meteorologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted Thursday, saying the drought in the Southeast is expected to persist and spread.

“Things are likely to continue and, if anything, become worse,” said Jon Gottschalck, head of forecast operations at the agency’s Climate Prediction Center.

The La Niña weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean is causing the warm, dry weather here, as it did most of last winter.

Georgia state climatologist Bill Murphey said he expects Georgia’s winter temperatures to be normal through January. But he said the spring warm-up could occur early, in February and March.

However, he said, there could be some snow or sleet this winter if current North Atlantic and Arctic oscillations “throw a kink in the forecast” by causing polar air to break south and collide with a jet of subtropical air. Murphey said those events are hard to forecast more than two to three weeks ahead of time.

Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, said many places in the country would need at least 15 inches of precipitation in a single month to end the drought.

Even with the 1.6 inches of rain Macon received Wednesday, Murphey said Macon’s rainfall for the past year has been only about 70 percent of normal, almost 14 inches less than usual.

Murphey said 61 percent of the state is in extreme drought, and 21 percent is experiencing severe drought conditions.

The majority of Middle Georgia also is in a severe hydrologic drought, meaning that its ground and surface water supplies are very low, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That portion of the region includes the Oconee river basin as well as most or all of Twiggs, Houston, Peach, Pulaski, Dodge and Laurens counties.

Ground water monitors in Houston, Twiggs and Pulaski counties show levels continuing to drop far below normal, Murphey said. Surface water levels throughout the midstate are also low, or far below, normal. Many Georgia streams and rivers, such as the Oconee River near Dublin and the Flint River near Griffin, had record-low flows this summer.

The Javors Lucas Reservoir, a Macon water source, is about 10 feet below full pool, authority Director Tony Rojas said. At 364.5 feet, it’s a little higher than its record low of 362 feet at this time of year in 2007, Rojas said.

The authority usually draws extra water from the Ocmulgee River during its high flow period from December to February to replenish the reservoir, Rojas said. Even during past droughts, flows were high enough to allow this. Rojas said the authority is currently pulling 28 million gallons a day from the river, a little more than the 21 million gallons a day that customers use at this time of year.

Soil is very dry

Although Middle Georgia usually replenishes its depleted water supplies during winter rains, that may not happen this year. The lack of rain combined with unusual heat this past summer made soil unusually dry. From March to the end of August, Macon’s highs were hotter than in any year since record keeping began.

Ronnie Barentine, cooperative extension agent for Pulaski County, said many farmers’ irrigation ponds are dry, and there is no moisture in the subsoil.

“We don’t have any reserve,” he said. “Aquifers are low, and people are having to lower their wells.”

Barentine said farmers with irrigation systems were lucky this year: The difficulties of the drought were offset by fewer insect pests and less crop disease than usual.

“We had some of the top yields we ever made on irrigated land,” Barentine said, which puts farmers in a better position than they might have expected for facing 2012 with a rainfall deficit.

This is Middle Georgia’s fifth drought in 15 years. The droughts have left Atlanta scrambling to find new water sources and the state haggling with its neighbors over water.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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