Industries and consumers faced the area’s worst drought in recorded history last year after an equally destructive April freeze. With summer setting in, meteorologists say the outlook is only slightly brighter as dry weather looms.
Still, farmers and forecasters said, this is better than last year.
“Last year, the freeze wiped us out,” said Phillip Pelham, owner of Cumberland Valley Nurseries in McMinnville, Tenn. “The drought didn’t hurt us because our trees were already dead. ... At least I have trees this year.”
This weekend marks the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, with today being the first full day of summer.
There may be a silver lining to the three-year drought that has hurt agriculture, energy, consumer prices and other areas. Tropical storms expected in the Southeast later this summer may bring relief, according to David Hotz, a National Weather Service meteorologist for eastern Tennessee.
The onset of rain could benefit farms, nurseries and reservoirs, provided the storms don’t bring high winds too close to the area, perhaps spelling disaster for crops, cautioned Joe Pearson, director of commodities for the Tennessee Farm Bureau.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is reporting water levels that are below normal for this time of year but improved over last year. As of Friday, the main watershed had received 79 percent of normal rainfall — just over 20 inches — and its runoff was at 65 percent of normal, according to TVA spokesman Gil Francis.
“We started on Jan. 1 (at) 19 inches below normal (rainfall) coming out of last year,” Mr. Francis said. “We’re better today than we were a year ago, but we’re still not back to normal. We’re still in the midst of a drought.”
Hydroelectric power generation was up compared to last year, Mr. Francis said, but only to 68 percent of normal levels. The limited water supply means higher utility costs, he said.
“When we don’t get normal hydro-generation ... we have to replace that with something else. And anything else that we replace it with is going to be more expensive,” he said.
This spring’s showers did not affect water levels significantly because much of the rain was absorbed directly into the arid ground, Mr. Francis said. The rain this year might keep lawns green, but low runoff means reservoir levels have not benefited as much, he said.
“We really need a sustained rain,” he said.
The National Weather Service’s latest Seasonal Drought Outlook, released Thursday, shows some improvement for the Chattanooga and Northwest Georgia area in the months ahead, according to Mr. Hotz. For the central and northeastern parts of Tennessee and northeastern Georgia, though, the report estimates drought conditions will persist with no real change.
Mr. Hotz also said that, over the last 10 years, drought periods have appeared to come in cycles, relieved by hurricane-prone periods. He declined to speculate, though, on whether the upcoming tropical storm season might signal an end to the dry trend.
As of Tuesday, the U.S. Drought Monitor’s most recent weekly report indicated “abnormally dry” conditions eastward of the belt from Giles through Putnam to Fentress counties, with drought growing more severe approaching the borders with Georgia and South Carolina. The Drought Monitor depicts a more dire situation in North Georgia, where counties east of Gwinnett all are mired in extreme drought, while conditions in counties to the west have been severe.
Staff Photo by Patrick Smith -- John Case rakes hay before bailing on his 120-acre farm near Trenton, Ga., on Friday. Though this year's rainfall is more than last, many farmers are still experiencing problems from the dry weather.
Georgia has suffered more because it does not draw water from the Tennessee River, an intermittent source of contention between Georgia and Tennessee politicians. As a fast-growing city with heavy water demand, Atlanta relies on a reservoir that now is well below normal levels. On June 5, Florida lawmakers in Washington, D.C., accused Georgia officials of mismanaging water consumption, The Associated Press reported.
But for area farmers, a rain-filled spring means their businesses are surviving.
“The yields are better because (the hay) is growing a bit longer,” said John Case, owner of Case Farms in Trenton, Ga.
He also noted, “It’s getting dry already. ... This Sunday it’ll be three weeks since it rained out here.”
“It’s beginning to get a little dry right now, but things are growing a lot better than they did last year at this time,” said Tommy Boyd, owner of Boyd & Boyd Nursery in McMinnville, Tenn., echoing a statement made by every farmer interviewed.
Many farmers said they have looked for alternate sources of water and, if they could afford it, invested in irrigation systems and wells. Most agreed that the ideal source of water, though, is rain.
This date marks the day when the sun rises to its highest point at noon. It is the longest day of the year, and it occurs June 20 in the Northern Hemisphere and Dec. 22 in the Southern Hemisphere. Its significance varies among cultures, with some calling it the first official day of summer and others identifying it as “mid-summer.”
“The rainfall is 100 percent better than a well,” Mr. Boyd said.
Mr. Pearson of the Farm Bureau said most of the hay crop at large has been very successful so far, with a much better cutting than last year. But, he added, “The second cutting is already showing signs in some areas of lack of growth. ... It’s early, and folks have not forgotten what happened last year.”
Several farmers noted the heavy rainfall that Midwestern states have received recently, putting the Mississippi River in danger of flooding.
“It’s too bad we can’t have some of the rain in Iowa,” said Cleveland, Tenn., farmer Bill Sparkman.