Drought returns as area marks third-driest winter

Drought returns as area marks third-driest winter

March 5th, 2011 by Andy Johns in News

Sunny, cloudless days have been nice for Chattanooga residents over the past month, but lawns and crops could pay for it later this year.

Hamilton, Catoosa, Walker, Marion and Dade counties have returned to "moderate drought" conditions after February rainfall totals were less than half the average amount for the month.

Official readings for Chattanooga show 2.24 inches of precipitation for February, or 2.61 inches below average.

March is looking better, however, as forecasts call for more than 3 inches of rain for the region over the next four days.

It was a different story earlier this year. The weather was so dry, in fact, the meteorological winter - December, January and February - was the third-driest in Chattanooga's 80-year historical record, according to William Schmitz, a climatologist with the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

Schmitz said the inch of snow earlier in February helped with water, but in terms of rainfall, "there wasn't a lot going on."

Drought conditions returned to the tri-state area last fall after summer and spring rains recharged creeks and lakes. The dry area spread and shrank week to week throughout the winter, but a dry February solidified the drought's grip on the region.

In Alabama, Jackson and DeKalb counties are experiencing "severe drought," while Northwest Georgia is listed as in a "moderate drought." In Middle and West Tennessee, conditions improved over the past week, but a band of "moderate drought" extends across the state's southern border from Memphis to Cleveland.

Lynn Torak, hydrogeologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Georgia Water Science Center, said it's tough to say how much the dry spell will affect groundwater, especially with the area's complex geology. If the dry weather continues, springs could start to slow down, affecting the streams they feed.

"It just depends on the local conditions," he said. "If the supply, the recharge, is reduced this time of year it could impact stream flow."

The road to recovery could begin this weekend. Forecasters call for a 100 percent chance of rain today and a 30 percent chance on Sunday.

It's a long road, however, according to Schmitz. In the last 12 months, Chattanooga is 16 inches behind the average precipitation for the period.

"Trying to make that up, I'm not sure," he said.