Six months into a deepening drought, the weather is killing crops, threatening cattle and sinking lakes to their lowest levels in years across much of the South.
The very worst conditions – what forecasters call “exceptional drought” – are in the mountains of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia, a region known for its thick green forests, waterfalls and red clay soil.
“Here at my farm, April 15 was when the rain cut off,” said David Bailey, who had to sell half his cattle, more than 100 animals, for lack of hay in Alabama’s scorched northeast corner.
“We’ve come through some dry years in the `80s, but I never seen it this dry, this long,” Bailey added. “There’s a bunch of people in a lot of bad shape here.”
The drought has spread from these mountains onto the Piedmont plateau, down to the plains and across 13 southern states, from Oklahoma and Texas to Florida and Virginia, putting about 33 million people in drought conditions, according to Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor.
In Mississippi, a man died when his farm field burned out of control, authorities said Friday. In Alabama, blazes have charred more than 12,000 acres in the past 30 days.
“There are places getting ready to set records for most numbers of days in a row without rain. It’s a once-in-100-year kind of thing for this time of year,” said John Christy, Alabama’s state climatologist.
The South has historically enjoyed abundant water, which has been fortunate, because much of its soil is poor at holding onto it. But the region’s booming growth has strained this resource. A legal battle between Georgia and Florida over water from rivers and their watersheds goes before a federal court official Monday, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to review his recommendations.
The dry weather is only making things worse.
“We’re 10 days away from a drought at any given time,” Christy explained. “Unlike the Midwest and other places in the country, we are closer to a drought than almost any place else.”
Parts of northern Georgia and Alabama have now seen their driest 60 days on record, Thursday’s national drought report showed.
If the drought persists, authorities said it could lead to the kinds of water use restrictions that are common out West, but haven’t been seen in parts of the South in nearly a decade.
During a major drought in Georgia in 2007, police in Atlanta’s suburb of Alpharetta were given the power to criminally cite anyone watering their lawns. In Alabama that year, people were fined for watering on the wrong day and many homes became infested by thirsty ants and cockroaches.
At the height of the 2007 drought, then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue prayed for rain with hundreds of residents at the state Capitol. The Georgia Department of Agriculture is reviving the practice: It has announced plans for a Monday “Pray for Rain” gathering with the state agriculture commissioner and Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in the northeast Georgia town of Lavonia.
In west Georgia this month, the Tallapoosa River dropped below the intake the Haralson County Water Authority uses to provide water to at least four small towns. Some major cities are spending big to prevent future water shortages: Atlanta has begun a $300 million project to store 2.4 billion gallons of water – a month’s water supply – and pipe it under the city.
This summer was particularly hot as well as dry, with 90-degree temperatures day after day that evaporated what little moisture the soil had left, said Bill Murphey, Georgia’s state climatologist.
This summer was the second-hottest on record in Atlanta, where seasonal rains still haven’t arrived: During the past 30 days, just over two-tenths of an inch of rain has fallen in Atlanta, 94 percent below normal, and in Cartersville, about 45 miles northwest of Atlanta, the weather service has recorded no rain at all.
The South’s usually temperate forests have turned into tinderboxes, worries Denise Croker, a chief ranger with the Georgia Forestry Commission in northwest Georgia.
In the arid western U.S., cigarettes tossed from cars have been known to start forest fires. In the South, higher humidity generally keeps that from happening, but not this year. Even a spark from a chain dragged from a truck could set the northwest Georgia woods on fire, she said.
“Our dirt is like talcum powder,” she said.
A man died Thursday in drought-plagued Montgomery County, Mississippi, the state Forestry Commission said. It appeared he was burning an agricultural field despite an outdoor burn ban when the fire roared out of control and overtook him.
Outdoor burning has been banned due to fire risk across parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and burn permits aren’t being issued in parts of Georgia.
“This is the worst drought that I’ve ever experienced and I’ve been farming for 45 years,” said Phillip Thompson, 60, who spent Tuesday night trying to snuff out a smoldering, 150-acre brush fire near Scottsboro, Alabama, where he farms corn and soybeans. “It’s just a bleak situation.”
Some of the South’s best known crops – cotton, peaches, peanuts and sweet potatoes – have largely escaped damage, because they’re mostly produced outside the worst drought areas, and in some cases got rain from Hurricane Matthew and other tropical weather, trade groups said.
Peanut yields will be down due to heat, drought or hurricanes, but that won’t likely affect consumer prices, said Dan Koehler, who directs the Georgia Peanut Commission.
As for sweet potatoes, the drought has been both good and bad: Hard ground can damage skin and lead to rot in stored tubers, but they also start curing in the ground when it’s really dry, which means “they’re really sweet,” said Sylvia Clark, secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Association.
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Brookside, Alabama; and Bill Fuller in New Orleans contributed to this report.