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Hope for drought relief fades as Southeast conditions worsen

Signs earlier this year that winter and spring rains had begun to ease dry conditions in the Southeast United States had faded by early summer, with more than 60 percent of the region being ranked as drought-stricken.

Drought has gripped areas of the Southeast for the past two years, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers is saying the region may be facing drought conditions “unprecedented in scope and severity.”

“Everyone involved and affected will have to be part of the solution to get through these difficult times,” said Corps spokesman Patrick Robbins in announcing that three key reservoirs feeding Georgia, Alabama and Florida are expected to be dropping.

The Corps, which manages regional water resources, warned that West Point Lake, which straddles the border between Georgia and Alabama, is expected to drop nearly 2.5 feet. Lake Walter Georgia, also on the border, is expected to drop 1.25 feet, while Lake Lanier, the north Georgia reservoir that is Atlanta's main water source, is slated to drop 1.3 feet.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor's final report for June, moisture helped to abate the drought in southern and southwest Florida, but long-term groundwater levels remain low throughout the state. Conditions in North Carolina and South Carolina, throughout Georgia, and into Alabama continue to decline. Most of Georgia is now covered by severe drought or worse.

Temperatures in Georgia were routinely in the 90s during June with little rain, says David Stooksbury, the state's climatologist.

Conditions in the western half of south and middle Georgia have deteriorated the most, falling into the severe drought category, says Stooksbury.

Severe drought now exists west and north of a line crossing Lowndes, Cook, Tift, Turner, Crisp, Dooly, Houston, Bibb, Jones, Baldwin, Hancock, Glascock, Warren, McDuffie and Richmond counties, he adds. It includes Albany, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Rome. Severe drought conditions occur about once in 20 years, says Stooksbury. In late June, the only Georgia counties not in drought were Glynn, Brantley, Pierce, Appling and Wayne, he says.

“The biggest concern over the next several weeks will be stream flows and soil moisture, says Stooksbury. Almost half of the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges across Georgia were at record-low flows as of June 25, he says.

“This analysis includes only gauges with a minimum of 30 years of records. It doesn't include gauges on the Chattahoochee River below the Buford Dam or gauges on the Savannah River,” he says.

Several streams are at or below their 7Q10 flow value, explains Stooksbury, which is the seven-day flow that has only a 10 percent chance of occurring in any given year. When it does happen, it typically occurs in September or October, when stream flows are normally at their lowest for the year. Seeing streams at or below the 7Q10 in late June indicates the severity of the current conditions, he says.

Soil moisture levels are extremely low north of a line from Seminole County to Screven County, he says.

“North of a line from Chattahoochee County to Richmond County, the levels are at or below the 10th percentile. At this percentile, we would expect more moisture in the soils 90 out of 100 years in late June,” he says.

Farm ponds, especially ones not fed by springs, are showing the lack of rain, notes Stooksbury. Many ponds didn't receive adequate recharge during the winter and entered the summer already low, he says.

“Through October, Georgia's best chance for widespread drought relief will be tropical disturbances. The tropics usually don't become active until late summer,” he says.

Meanwhile, In the throes of yet another year of drought, legislators in Alabama have begun preparing to draft a plan to manage and conserve the state's water resources.

Georgia's General Assembly recently passed a comprehensive water management plan for that state.

The Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management met recently at Auburn University after being formed this spring. The committee is made up of seven members each from the state's House and Senate.

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