Far-reaching drought chokes much of U.S.
(CNN) -- Four years without adequate rainfall have left a broad quilt of browned lawns, withered crops and scorched forests across much of the United States.
But for Jeff Tranel, an agriculture and business economist with the Colorado State University extension service, it's what's not there that indicates how tough things are.
"I'm out in the country quite a bit, and there are very few cows left," Tranel said recently.
"In one county, Huerfano County, the 1997 census of agriculture data showed 28,000 beef cows in that county. A month ago, talking to ranchers, they said if you could find 1,000 to 5,000 cows, you would be lucky."
The disappearance of thousands of cows from the heart of cattle country is a symptom of the severe drought that has gripped most of the West and much of the Southeast for four years. With nearly half the continental United States suffering from extremely dry conditions, some observers say it's the worst dry spell the country has seen in a generation -- perhaps two.
"This drought is widespread and pretty intense over some large areas that rival those of the '50s," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. "What we haven't seen maybe is the long-term heat, year after year after year, that we saw in the '30s."
The effects have been seen most dramatically in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, where kiln-dry timberland exploded into a string of wildfires. More than 3.2 million acres have been burned this year, roughly twice the 10-year average, federal fire officials report.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared the entire state of Utah and numerous counties in Colorado, California, New Mexico and Arizona agricultural disaster areas, making farmers and ranchers in those regions eligible for federal emergency loans.
The department also has opened millions of acres across 18 states from its Conservation Reserve Program for grazing and hay harvesting as ranchers have been forced to sell entire herds of cattle at a loss rather than keep them on drought-stricken pastureland.
The last major drought in the United States occurred in the late 1980s and had an estimated economic impact of nearly $40 billion. The economic impact of the current drought differs among regions and sectors, Svoboda said, "but I think it's safe to say when it's all said and done, this one is going to be right up there. When we start looking at all the impacts, it's going to be in the billions of dollars."
After years of drought in the Southwest and the Rockies, the High Plains states are starting to feel the pinch as well. In South Dakota, rainfall is about half of normal for much of the state, said Michael Held, administrative director for the South Dakota Farm Bureau.
"In the central third of the state, most of the crops -- wheat as well as corn and soybeans -- have been severely damaged to completely ruined," he said.
The drought is also causing problems for some of the fastest-growing cities in the increasingly urbanized Sunbelt, from Atlanta to Albuquerque.
In New Mexico and southwestern Texas, only about 2 percent of the water that normally flows into Rio Grande has reached the river this year, said Barry Wirth, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Along the Colorado River, which feeds some of the West's biggest cities -- including Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles -- water levels in major reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead are 50 to 60 feet below normal, Wirth said.
"It appears that we are on track right now to be equal to or worse than 1977, which was the worst drought year on record since Lake Powell was created. So we are in pretty stricken shape right now," he said.
Residents of many of these cities are struggling with restrictions on water use even as more and more people are moving in.
In Georgia, all 15 counties in metropolitan Atlanta are under water restrictions that allow outdoor watering only from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. on alternate days. Lake Lanier, the major source of water for the area's nearly 4 million people, has been down as low as 12 feet below full pool in recent years: It is currently about 7 feet below normal.
"We're only releasing the minimum flows necessary to preserve water quality in the system and water supply where needed," said Pat Robbins, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. "In other words, we've got it down to the absolute minimum that we can do, but we've got to maintain water quality and supply where it's needed."
In Denver, city officials patrol enforce limits that allow homeowners to water lawns only every third day. Penalties range from a warning for first offenders to a $250 fine and the ultimate sanction -- having water cut off.
"Our major job is to educate our customers on what they need to do," said Robert Trujillo, a member of the city's "Sod Squad." "Mostly, people understand. I haven't had anyone get really angry with me."
The prospects for the future are uncertain. What forecasters are banking on to relieve the drought is the development of the recurring Pacific weather system known as El Nino. Scientists announced earlier this month that the phenomenon -- an above-average warming of eastern Pacific waters that typically occurs every four to five years -- should ease drought conditions in the Southeast and give the northern United States a mild winter.
But continued concern can be seen in the picturesque snows atop the peaks of the Rockies. Mountain snowpacks serve as natural reservoirs that provide much of the next season's water supply for the West -- are currently between 25 percent to 40 percent of what observers consider normal, Svoboda said.
"What's going be the real kicker is what happens this winter," Svoboda said. "Is this El Nino going to develop? It looks like it is, but is it going to be very strong? No, it doesn't look like it's going to be very strong. I think the jury's still out as to how beneficial this El Nino is going to be."
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