Drought Worsens, States Take Emergency Measures
By Joseph Giordono, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON - Hoping to take preventive action before the state's water situation becomes critical, Delaware Governor Tom Carper Thursday declared a drought emergency in the northern portion of the state. The non-agricultural region's water supplies depend on the White Clay and Brandywine Rivers, both of which are nearing record low water levels.
The governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland have taken similar actions, and the governor of West Virginia plans to call his state legislature into special session to deal with the situation.
Earlier this week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman designated the entire state of West Virginia and parts of Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia disaster areas due to excessive heat and drought, making farmers in those areas eligible to apply for emergency loans when drought-related losses are calculated at season's end.
Yesterday, Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton requested that an additional 16 counties in his state be added to the drought disaster list. That brings the total to exactly half of Kentucky's 120 counties awaiting aid.
And with no relief from the oppressive conditions in sight, other states are likely to follow suit.
"Although West Virginia is the first state to receive a disaster designation for the current drought, other states are suffering," USDA Farm Service Agency spokesperson Laura Trivers said. "Damage is being assessed and additional requests for disaster designations are expected soon."
The hardest-hit areas include the eastern portion of the United States from New England to western North Carolina, the northern half of Florida and sections of the Pacific Northwest, Trivers said.
USDA officials are unofficially calling this the worst drought since the disaster of 1931, which forced thousands of Dustbowl farmers to abandon their fallow lands in hopes of better luck further west.
The National Weather Service said rainfall levels in West Virginia are as much as 13 inches below normal. The state's farm losses have already exceeded $100 million, and West Virginia Agriculture Secretary Guy Douglass estimates the drought may put about 10 percent of the state's 21,000 farmers out of business.
"We would need about 15 inches of rain to make up for the loss, but the damage is already done," Douglass told reporters as he toured drought stricken farms in eastern West Virginia.
Farmers aren't the only ones feeling the pressure. State agriculture officials are getting reports of cattle ranchers selling off their entire herds, including their breeding stock, to try to pay debts and keep the livestock from starving.
Ranchers who sell that much of their herd will not be able to rebuild, officials said.
"What bothers us is, once we lose these folks, we know they're gone," Douglass said.
So many cattle are being sold that West Virginia slaughterhouses are turning away ranchers and sending them to markets in Northern Virginia.
West Virginia's drought woes are all too familiar in states throughout the region.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening announced yesterday that he has been forced to impose water use restrictions even more severe than he thought necessary just last week.
"The package we will adopt will cause some loss and hardship," he said.
Glendening announced his intentions after a closed door meeting with a state drought task force. The restrictions prohibit residents from watering their lawns or washing their cars as part of a broader conservation strategy. Virginia water officials immediately criticized the restrictions as unnecessary in the Washington-area suburbs despite the ongoing drought.
In Ohio, Governor Bob Taft is waiting on crop damage reports from 39 rural counties to determine whether to request federal assistance on a larger scale. Nine Ohio counties were included in the USDA's West Virginia declaration, and Ohio's drought executive committee is weighing imposition of mandatory regulations.
Until now, the committee has only recommended voluntary restrictions and water conservation education efforts.
Ohio ranchers are also showing signs of being affected by the drought, with cattle sales jumping more than 215 percent above normal for July.
On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman declared a statewide drought warning and filed an application for federal disaster relief.
After touring farms throughout her state, Whitman said roughly 10 percent of the state's $800 million a year agriculture industry will be severely affected, with crop losses predicted to range anywhere from 20 to 100 percent.
With environmentalists and agriculture officials warning that it could already be too late, Governor Whitman has decided to hold off on declaring an outright drought emergency.
"We don't want to have to move to the drought emergency. That is very severe and the restrictions and the penalties are very severe. However, having said that, we are fully prepared to do that when we feel it is warranted," she said.
Pennsylvania has been under mandatory water restrictions since July 21, when Gov. Tom Ridge declared a drought emergency in 55 counties including Philadelphia and its suburbs.
"If we don't begin to conserve today, there won't be any water to conserve tomorrow," Ridge said when announcing the restrictions. "Unless we act now, we will encounter severe consequences in the future."
Pennsylvania officials estimate that restrictions against watering lawns and washing cars could mean as much as a 50 percent saving in the amount of water that residents use during summer months.
The current drought is only the latest blow for American agriculture, combining with low crop prices and weak farm exports to revisit the nightmares of the early 1980s farm crisis.
"Even with this drought assistance, there remain serious problems in American agriculture," Secretary Glickman said. "Low prices, over production and natural disasters have devastated family farmers this year. We need an adequate safety net for our farmers and ranchers."
This is the second year in a row that Congress has appropriated aid beyond normal subsidy programs, with the Senate yesterday passing $7.4 billion in emergency assistance.
Farmers and ranchers wonder if it is too little, too late. In July, several thousand farmers from around the Midwest joined in a Minnesota rally to save the family farm, calling for restrictions on corporate farms and consolidation among grain and seed processors.