Deepening drought destroys crops, threatens herds
Atlanta — Six months into a deepening drought, the weather is killing crops, threatening cattle and sinking lakes to their lowest levels in years across much of the South.
The very worst conditions — what forecasters call "exceptional drought" — are in the mountains of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia, a region known for its thick green forests, waterfalls and red clay soil.
"Here at my farm, April 15 was when the rain cut off," said David Bailey, who had to sell half his cattle, more than 100 animals, for lack of hay in Alabama's scorched northeast corner.
"We've come through some dry years in the '80s, but I never seen it this dry, this long," Bailey added. "There's a bunch of people in a lot of bad shape here."
The drought has spread from these mountains onto the Piedmont plateau, down to the plains and across 13 southern states, from Oklahoma and Texas to Florida and Virginia, putting about 33 million people in drought conditions, according to Thursday's U.S. Drought Monitor.
In Mississippi, a man died when his farm field burned out of control, authorities said Friday. In Alabama, blazes have charred more than 12,000 acres in the past 30 days.
"There are places getting ready to set records for most numbers of days in a row without rain. It's a once-in-100-year kind of thing for this time of year," said John Christy, Alabama's state climatologist.
The South has historically enjoyed abundant water, which has been fortunate, because much of its soil is poor at holding onto it. But the region's booming growth has strained this resource. A legal battle between Georgia and Florida over water from rivers and their watersheds goes before a federal court official Monday, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to review his recommendations.
The dry weather is only making things worse.
"We're 10 days away from a drought at any given time," Christy explained. "Unlike the Midwest and other places in the country, we are closer to a drought than almost any place else."
Parts of northern Georgia and Alabama have now seen their driest 60 days on record, Thursday's national drought report showed.
If the drought persists, authorities said it could lead to the kinds of water use restrictions that are common out West, but haven't been seen in parts of the South in nearly a decade.