The first days of summer brought record heat, little rain and wilting hopes of averting the Dust Bowl of 1988.
"Watching a drought is almost like watching paint dry," said Ron Affeldt, director of the Office of Emergency Management in hard-hit North Dakota, "but out there today, it is happening fast, extremely fast."The impact was measured not only in failing crops but in frantic commodity trading, surging electric power demand, restrictions on lawn-watering and car-washing in dozens of towns and backed-up shipping on the no longer mighty Mississippi. The river was 20 feet below its year-ago levels at Memphis, Tenn., where more than a thousand barges were stranded.
In some respects, it was already a lost summer. Rain could still save some crops, said Kansas Agriculture Secretary Sam Brownback, but "the pastures are so short they're never going to get ahead of the herd - they're past their growing."
However, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng said Thursday that hard, steady rain in the next two weeks could still prevent major damage and that it was still too early to commit federal money to drought relief.
In the past week, the drought was measured in many ways:
- The Department of Agriculture listed 1,455 counties, or nearly half the total, as having a drought emergency.
- The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the number of streams with normal flow in May was the lowest in six years, with only 54 percent of 191 river measuring stations at normal or better. Streamflows in California were 42 percent below average in May. The Saline River in Arkansas had only 10 percent of normal flow, while the Tombigbee River at Coatopa, Ala., was 15 percent of normal.
- Sixty-one cities had record high temperatures on Tuesday, 64 set records on Wednesday and 35 on Thursday.
- Cows were selling for 39 cents a pound, down from 51-52 cents two weeks ago, as farmers rushed to get rid of herds they could no longer feed.
- Tom George, administrator of Soil Conservation Service erosion surveys, said wind erosion damaged 13.1 million parched acres in the Great Plains this year, about three times the annual average.
- Corn prices have doubled in a month, from $1.70-$1.85 in May to $3.48 at Thursday's close. Soybeans nudged close to $11 a bushel for July delivery.
"With the corn crop, each week that goes by without rain means another 10 percent is lost," said Joel Karlin, an analyst with Research Department Inc. in Chicago. Some estimate anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. corn crop already has been ruined.
While that was bad news for consumers, farmers with adequate rain and those with grain in storage stood to reap windfall profits.
"I'm afraid we're going to lose some farmers, and we've lost enough already in my state," said Gov. George Sinner of North Dakota, one of 10 Midwest governors who met with Lyng in Chicago last week.
The bottom line for consumers, the Agriculture Department said, is a 1 percent increase in food prices if the drought persists.
Grain-based foods, such as bread and pasta, were likely to increase the most, economists said. Drought was also likely to raise the price of beer. Barley, a prime ingredient in beer, has increased from $2.55-$2.60 a bushel to $4.30-$4.50 since June 6, said Marge Jones, owner and publisher of the Brewers Bulletin in Woodstock, Ill.
Low river levels also posed a pollution threat because there wasn't enough water in many places to properly dilute sewage and other waste.
Flows were barely adequate to handle discharges from pulp and paper mills along the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, said Bruce Baker, director of water resource management for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources.
"Once a flow drops below risk level, waste from the plants exceeds a river's capacity to assimilate it," Baker said. "At that point, we must just sit back and watch the fish die."