Drought To Continue

Growers can expect to rely heavily on irrigation in 2008,
that is if water is available.

By Amanda Huber

Everyone in the Southeast was hoping that the winter would bring more rainfall and signal an end to the drought that has been all the news for the past couple of years. However, Joel Paz from the University of Georgia’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, says that these few events of favorable weather are not going to last.

The overall climate forecast is for continued warm and dry conditions caused by a full-blown La Niña event.
“Changing ocean temperatures impact the climate in the United States, and what we see is a cooling of the ocean waters and that is a typical La Niña effect,” says Paz, who also works closely with the Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC). “La Niña events can persist for three years or more.”

Paz says the current climate pattern of a La Niña event came about quickly in late 2006 and early 2007.

“In December 2006, we were looking forward to an El Niño effect, which would bring favorable weather and rainfall pattern. But, then it crashed down, and the pattern changed quickly. It just dropped off to the beginning of a La Niña effect, and that’s what really caused our drought last year,” he says.

By September, the SECC says the ocean surface waters in the central Pacific began to take the classic La Niña pattern and since then, the colder waters have continued to spread westward and further intensify. What was once predicted as a weak-to-moderate La Niña event, is now being considered as possibly a moderate-to-strong event.

What Paz says this means for the Southeast is that drought conditions are likely to continue in Georgia and Alabama and possibly worsen in Florida.

As noted by the SECC, winter rainfall is vital for the recharge of surface and groundwater in these states and deficits are likely to create water supply problems come spring and early summer. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly 50 percent of the Southeast is now classified as being in extreme or exceptional drought. Exceptional drought corresponds to drought conditions that return on average every 50 or 100 years. By some measures, the drought in northern Georgia and Alabama is the worst on record.

Will Water Be Available
As a mostly surface-water irrigator, Georgia grower Jimmy Webb is always concerned about ponds being refilled and enough water from rivers so that he can run his irrigation pumps.

“It was touch-and-go last year from May until we got the corn crop made,” says Webb, who farms in Leary, Ga. “My energy prices in order to pump water were over $100 per acre for diesel and around $65 for electricity.”

Webb says it will be hard to survive another year with those kind of energy costs, and that’s if he has the water available. “Our irrigated yields were excellent, but the money is still about the same.”

On March 1, Webb says, the Georgia Environmental Protection Department director could declare a drought and try to buy out so many acres to keep creeks from drying up.

“I’m scared surface-water users would be targeted,” he says. “It will take a great deal of money to buy out acres now as commodity prices are at the highest in years.”


Plan Using Ag Climate Tools
The Southeast Climate Consortium’s Web site, www.agclimate.org, contains several tools to help growers use climate events to help plan and manage the production season. Some of their tools specific to peanuts are as follows:

Yield Risk Analysis - Crop yield risks associated with climate variability can be analyzed in by looking at county yield database or by evaluating yield risk based on crop model simulations. Simulations allow the comparison of yield potentials based on climate forecast and planting dates.

Management Options - Basic information about management adaptations that could be implemented in an attempt to reduce production risks associated with climate variability.

Growing Degree Days - Forecasts of degree day accumulations that can be used to predict crop development and potential critical dates such as flowering or maturity.

Crop Insurance - Basic information about the types of insurance available for peanut growers and links to peanut-related pages in the USDA-RMA Web site.