Lengthy Drought Takes Toll on States
By Greg McDonald, Senior Writer
Three-minute showers in Pennsylvania. A run on low-flow toilets in New Mexico. Early spring fires in Colorado. And the extension of low-interest loans to farmers across the country.
What do these seemingly unrelated items have in common? All are the result of a long-running, near-nationwide drought that has prompted local and state governments to implement new water conservation guidelines and forced some governors to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare their states national drought disaster areas.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer have just requested the designation. If granted, it would make their states' farmers and ranchers eligible for federally backed low-interest loans to help offset expected crop losses.
Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson may be making a similar request soon. Both have declared statewide emergencies, the first step toward seeking federal drought disaster assistance.
So far this year, only Montana, South Carolina and Maine have received statewide emergency designations from Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who has called the drought gripping much of the country for over a year one of the most severe this century. Veneman has also declared large portions of Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, North Dakota, Ohio and Mississippi disaster areas because of water shortages.
If drought conditions continue through the summer, as long range national weather forecasts suggest, more areas of the country could end up on a federal list of states most seriously affected by water shortages.
Recent rains along the Eastern seaboard have helped improve dry conditions from Georgia to Maine. But many Eastern states still have rainfall deficits of 9-to12 inches. A few states, particularly New York and Connecticut, are worse off with deficits of more than 12 inches. The main reservoir that feeds New York City is down nearly 50 percent from its normal level.
In the West, meanwhile, things are even more bleak. Streamflows are running 50 to 70 percent below normal in parts of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho because of light winter snows. National weather experts say water shortages in areas of those states are a sure bet for this summer, which will undoubtedly increase the risk of crop losses and wildfires.
"Montana and Wyoming have been suffering for over a year...And even if (the Western region) gets normal rainfall, the drought conditions are liable to persist," Mike Halpert, chief of operations for the National Climate Prediction Center, told Stateline.org.
That's bad news for Western states, Halpert says, because "there are a lot of dry forests around."
Like much of the West, Colorado is dealing with some of the driest conditions in years. Residents are being asked to conserve water and Gov. Owens has ordered the release of nearly $500,000 in emergency funds to expedite the mobilization of firefighters and equipment six weeks earlier than usual. The dry conditions have already contributed to an outbreak of fires across the state. Losses stand at more than 7,500 acres burned over the past two months. The figure is climbing everyday as more fires break out.
The situation in Colorado has prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to authorize the use of federal funds to help fight the early spring fires. Under FEMA guidelines, the government will pay up to 75 percent of the state's costs.
"This is a statewide emergency that requires a statewide response," Owens said at a recent news conference in which he stressed the importance as well of federal assistance.
Fearing a crisis, Owens may also ask state lawmakers for increased powers to shift funding or take other action that would allow him to respond more quickly to drought-related problems without having to seek legislative approval. Governors in several other Western states have sought the same privilege from their legislatures.
In the East, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening issued an executive order in early April declaring a drought emergency for counties in the central part of the state where some wells have gone dry and reservoir levels are the lowest in history. The order imposed mandatory restrictions on water usage, essentially outlawing everything from watering lawns to washing cars. Other parts of the state were put on water shortage "watches" and asked to limit usage voluntarily. Despite recent rains, Glendening's order is still in place.
"A few days of intermittent rain is not enough to make up the large deficit we have accumulated," the governor said in a recent statement.
"We're down as much as 11 inches. We're really looking at a drought that really started three years ago," Rich McIntyre, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Environment, told Stateline.org. "In Central Maryland, it's an emergency situation."
In some states, such as New Mexico and Pennsylvania, local communities aren't waiting for state officials to impose water conservation restrictions. In Santa Fe, for example, the City Council voted (4/24) to spend $1 million on 10,000 low-flow toilets and showerheads to reduce water usage. The toilets will be given away free to city residents. City officials say they hope to save about 300,000 gallons a day once the toilets are installed.
In Lebanon County, Pa., east of Harrisburg, officials imposed mandatory water usage restrictions earlier this month - not just for residents and businesses, but for government facilities as well. The Associated Press reported that only a few complaints had been registered, and most of those came from inmates at a local prison who were restricted to three-minute showers, three times a week. The loudest complaint, however, came from the prison warden who refused to implement the order right away. He was suspended for three days.