Woe and opportunity: Tales of historic drought

By David Mercer

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 11:31 p.m. MDT

In this Aug. 3, 2012 photo, Tony Frost, of Frost Farms, lines up a hose into a 1,000-gallon water tank in Tallula, Ill., as he fills it to take back to the farm for his cattle. After months of drought, the central Illinois creeks and ponds that the 300 cows and calves drink from on the farm are dry or close to it. Frost has to buy and haul water, about 4,000 gallons a day, split up in four trips to different pastures. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The United States is in the midst of the worst drought in decades, and the dry weather and soaring temperatures are taking a toll on people living and working in Ohio, west to California and Texas, north to the Dakotas. Farmers have watched their corn wither and their cattle go hungry. Homeowners have seen their lawns turn brown and gardens wilt. Communities in the Midwest that rarely experience water shortages have enacted restrictions, and businesses are looking for ways to stay afloat as sales fall off. Here are a few of their stories:

WATER FOR QUARTERS

The creeks and ponds that Cimeron Frost's 300 cows and calves drink from in central Illinois are almost dry.

So each day, he takes rolls of quarters to what amounts to water vending machines in nearby towns. He drops in the coins, collects the water in metal and plastic tanks and tows it on trailers to his pastures around the town of Tallula. He hauls 4,000 gallons a day in four separate trips, dumping or piping the water into big, galvanized-steel troughs for his herd to drink.

Even at 40 to 50 gallons per quarter, it adds up.

"It takes a little over two rolls of quarters a day, plus probably $40 in gasoline a day, to water all our cows in all our locations," Frost, 65, said. At $10 a roll, that's about 60 bucks a day, or $420 a week, and he's been hauling every day since mid-June.

He estimates he has spent about $2,700 so far. But he worries more about what could lie ahead.

"If we don't have a wet fall and a wet spring, we could be in trouble for another year," Frost said.

— David Mercer in Champaign, Ill.

BUY NOW, PLANT LATER

Jeff Gatewood has never seen a summer this bad in 36 years at Allisonville Nursery in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers.

Indianapolis had its hottest July on record, with temperatures topping 90 degrees on 28 days, and less than an inch of rain fell in June and July.

"We've now gone where nobody's gone before. Hot, dry, hot, dry, record-setting all the time," Gatewood said.

With business down 20 percent to 30 percent because of the weather, he quit ordering new plants in June and cut hours and staff. Then, he decided to get creative.

The nursery held a "heat stroke" sale in late July, offering customers a chance to buy plants and pick them up later, once cooler temperatures arrive and local watering bans are lifted. That brought people in and helped business some, he said.

"We're seeing a pent-up demand like a dam wanting to break. I think once we see cooler temperatures in the lower 80s, get a little rain shower — that's going to help," he said.

The nursery has clustered plants in shaded areas to protect them. Gatewood said hydrangeas are especially vulnerable.

"Even in the shade, when it's 95 or 100, they hate it," he said.

— Jeni O'Malley in Indianapolis

RESOURCE RATIONING

Randy Pettinghill buys water from the city of Morrilton for his farm in the Arkansas River Valley, but this year, the city put a cap on what he could have. It turns on the spigot every third night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and Pettinghill collects as much as he can in lagoons on his property in Arkansas' Conway County.

He tries to ration the water, but with the temperature regularly over 100 degrees, he's losing a lot to evaporation.

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