Bone dry: Drought worsens in Macon in October

adrury@macon.comOctober 31, 2012 

October usually is one of Georgia’s driest months, normally bringing about 2 3/4 inches of rain to Macon.

But this year, October skies dropped just a quarter-inch of rain to the parched city, plunging the area deeper into a lingering drought.

During the past two years, the cumulative rainfall deficit stands at more than 28 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Peachtree City. Much of the midstate is in “exceptional” drought -- the worst drought category -- including all or parts of Baldwin, Bibb, Crawford, Dooly, Hancock, Houston, Jones, Macon, Peach, Putnam, Twiggs, Washington and Wilkinson counties.

“The central part of the state has generally been missed with substantial rains to reverse the drought,” said Kent Frantz, service hydrologist for the weather service.

The lack of water is taking its toll on trees in the Middle Georgia landscape, and older trees are particularly vulnerable to the continued dry weather, said Derrick Catlett, a certified arborist with Macon State College.

“I’ve seen a lot of the more mature historic heritage trees dying from a lack of water,” Catlett said, listing red maples, sweet gums, wetland oaks and dogwoods among the most at risk. “We’re losing a lot of the 175-year-old oak trees and the large pines.”

Javors Lucas Lake, the Macon Water Authority’s reservoir, stands at 10 feet below full pool, or about 75 percent full, Tony Rojas, the authority’s executive director, said Wednesday.

A month ago, the authority was able to draw 27.8 million gallons a day from the Ocmulgee River to replace water removed from the reservoir. At the time, customer demand was about 23.5 million gallons a day.

But the authority is able to pull fewer gallons from the river now, Rojas said. On Tuesday, for example, the authority took 26 million gallons from the reservoir, pulling 19 million from the river to help replace it. Rojas said that although the river is low, tree leaves in river water filters, which slows down the process, are more to blame for that lower amount.

“We’re almost meeting demand from the river,” he said.

The ongoing drought, now in its third year in Georgia, isn’t a big concern for the authority yet.

“Even if we only have significant (river) flows intermittently during the winter, we should be able to get back to full pool (in the reservoir),” Rojas said. “We’ve seen it lower than this at this time of year. We’re comfortable right now.”

Forecast may improve

The possibility of increased rainfall may be on the horizon.

Frantz, with the weather service, said a weather pattern known as El Niño is setting up, which usually means above average rainfall for the Southeast. Even though this El Niño appears to be weak, Frantz said it still likely means more rain.

“We need surplus rainfall for a minimum of three months just to turn things around,” he said. “If we get our winter rains and our spring storms, it may not erase the drought, but it could help move the drought numbers.”

The long-range forecast through Jan. 31, 2013, shows some drought improvement for the midstate.

Catlett, from Macon State College, said the best things to do for trees in yards and landscapes is to use mulch, preferably ground hardwood mulch rather than pine straw.

New trees should be planted in wide holes, and people can add moisture crystals, which can be purchased at area garden centers, in the top 4 inches of soil when planting new trees. The crystals help hold water for a tree’s use, Catlett said.

Younger, newly transplanted trees require about an inch of water a week through the growing season, with more established trees needing about an inch a month, except in extremely hot weather, when they would need more, he said.

As the drought marches toward the winter months, Frantz said the effects of the drought can be masked by falling leaves and cooler conditions.

“You don’t always notice the drought as much this time of year,” he said. But it’s also a good time for rains to make a dent in the drought. “Because of lower evaporation rates ... and plants going dormant, rainfall has the chance to absorb into the ground and get down to the water table,” he said. “If people want to pray for rain, it would be well founded.”

To contact writer Andy M. Drury, call 744-4477.

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