published Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Chattanooga: Record rains bring down drought-stressed trees

by Kathy Gilbert

Recent heavy rains helped bring down a significant number of drought-stressed trees in this area but may have saved others, foresters say.

Last month, EPB’s tree clean-up calls doubled — from about 20 to about 40 — the result of nearly three years of drought followed by record-breaking rains in December, according to the utility.

Yet the clouds bore a silver lining, said EPB Forester Ray Davis.

He said the nearly 15 inches of rain in December and January — twice the normal rate — finally has begun to recharge the water table and restore soil moisture. Barring a severe spring freeze, local trees could be on target for a productive summer.

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“We may have dodged a big bullet,” Mr. Davis said.

Other arborists said they have not seen an unusual number of fallen trees.

“We’re not seeing greater-than-normal blowdown, though more trees may have died because of the drought,” said Chattanooga’s Urban Forester Gene Hyde.

The standard theory of falling trees holds that drought-stressed trees produce weak or dying roots. When rains hit, soils soften, and the trees’ roots rip out of the ground.

“We’ve been doing trees all over the whole area that have fallen, and 95 percent of them are showing root deterioration (from drought stress),” said Allen Lewis, owner of L.H. Lewis Tree Service in Soddy-Daisy.

“We’ve done probably 20 blowdowns, and all but one showed root problems, so it’s definitely having an effect,” said Jerry Roberts, owner of Roberts Tree Service in Suck Creek.

In mountain areas, limestone rock soaked up the rainfall, so softened soils were not a problem, he added.

Clients who followed his advice to water their trees regularly during the drought seemed to have fewer downed trees, he said.

Charles “Chuck” Lutz, a local insurance adjuster, said recent rains did not produce an unusual number of insurance claims.

“Whenever we get a lot of rain, we get a lot of trees coming up,” he said. “I would have thought we would have had a lot more trees coming over (this month). I think the reason is that we didn’t have (high) winds.”

Though the water table temporarily has rebounded, dwindling trees still need more time to recover, said Carl Absher, co-owner of ABC Tree Service in Harrison.

“We’re a long way of being out of drought stress,” Mr. Absher said.

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