Related topics

Drought Grips the Corn Belt

April 26, 2000

WINTERSET, Iowa (AP) _ Each day, Jody Milligan decides which is most important: taking a shower, doing the laundry or watering her two horses. Her well is drying up.

The same thing is happening to Russell Faux’s well. The 71-year-old farmer drives 11 miles to Winterset every week or two for 325 gallons of water so he and his wife can bathe, cook and water the cattle.

``It was bad last year,″ Milligan said, ``but this year it’s ridiculous.″

Drought is choking the Midwest _ particularly the Corn Belt. A severe drought zone extends from Nebraska and Iowa across parts of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana and into Ohio. Since last July, rainfall in the severe drought zone has been six to nine inches below normal.

``You see things greening on the surface, but it’s a ticking time bomb below the surface,″ said Michael Palecki, a climatologist with the Midwestern Regional Climate Center in Champaign, Ill.

While there is enough moisture now at the surface for crops to sprout, the soil is dry a foot or two down. And long-range forecasts suggest it will be drier and warmer than normal through much of the region from May through July, a critical part of the growing season.

Little of the nation’s corn crop is planted right now, and things could still turn around. But a continued dry spell could mean higher prices for corn and soybeans and financial ruin for farmers.

John Dittrich, who irrigates two-thirds of his corn and soybeans near Tilden, Neb., is worried about the odds.

``It makes Las Vegas look stable,″ he said.

Already, creeks in cow pastures are drying up. Shorelines and tree roots are exposed as rivers recede.

Both Milligan and Faux have shallow wells _ which are less than 100 feet and rely on soil moisture rather than deep underground water sources _ but they never ran into problems until last summer.

Nowadays, Milligan and her husband, Steve, often shower at her pet grooming business in Adel, 30 miles from home, to conserve water. If they water horses one day, they put off washing dishes or doing a load of laundry until the next day.

In Iowa, the precipitation total from Sept. 1, 1999, to April 1, 2000, was the fourth-lowest since 1873. Other states in the Corn Belt are seeing pretty much the same thing.

The dry spell has been compounded by unusually warm weather, which has sucked moisture from the soil. Temperatures in Iowa over the past nine months have shown the biggest shift in 105 years from what is considered normal.

Large portions of Texas, Florida and Georgia are also going through a severe drought.

Some environmentalists blame global warming. Climatologists cite La Nina, a cooling of the eastern Pacific Ocean around the equator. La Nina tends to bring dry, hot summers to the Midwest.

In fact, the last severe drought in the Midwest, in 1988-89, also occurred during a La Nina. The dry spell was one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, with an estimated $54 billion in crop losses and other damage.

This La Nina, however, has continued for an unusual two years.

``You’d have to go back decades to find one that’s lasted this long,″ said Douglas Le Comte, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.


On the Net: Midwestern Regional Climate Center: http://mcc.sws.uiuc.edu

U.S. Drought Monitor: http://enso.unl.edu/monitor/monitor.html


State precipitation totals between July 1999 and March 2000, and deviations from the 1961-90 normal:


Illinois 19.53 -7.35 8

Indiana 21.45 -7.23 12

Iowa 15.54 -4.97 17

Kentucky 26.04 -9.09 6

Michigan 20.26 -3.10 32

Minnesota 17.85 +.46 72

Missouri 21.37 -4.03 13

Ohio 24.36 -2.64 33

Wisconsin 20.60 -1.17 52

Average 20.44 -4.27 13

State temperatures between July 1999 and March 2000, and deviations from the 1961-90 normal:


Illinois +1.9 6 (tie)

Indiana +1.7 7 (tie)

Iowa +2.6 1 (tie)

Kentucky +2.3 5 (tie)

Michigan +2.0 4

Minnesota +3.8 1

Missouri +2.6 4

Ohio +1.7 5 (tie)

Wisconsin +2.8 3

Average +2.5 2


Source: Midwestern Regional Climate Center

Update hourly