Farming with less water is fact of life in Southeast

“Mother Nature, she's a woman. You ain't gonna tell her what to do. And she ain't gonna tell you what she's gonna do.”

This quote, from a North Dakota farmer contemplating the ramifications of global warming, contains a lot of truth. Despite the federal government's contention that global warming has begun, and that farming conditions will change accordingly, the opposite has been true in some regions of the United States.

U.S. weather prognosticators insist that American farmers increasingly will have to deal with the effects of global warming. In a report to the United Nations this past May, the government said that if farmers can adapt, the changing climate actually may increase the nation's farm productivity of at least the next several decades. Yields of cotton, soybeans, wheat, barley and other crops could go up.

But it's tough to project what the weather will do tomorrow, much less project temperature and precipitation for the next 100 years. Critics say precipitation projections are especially suspect, and that projected temperature increases are tiny compared to the year-to-year variability in the climates of most states.

Global warming, increased or decreased precipitation — whatever occurs in the future, if you're a Southeastern farmer, you can count on one irrefutable fact: You will have to learn to farm with less water.

Several Southeastern states are in the process of doing something that — until recently — was unheard of in this region. They are coming up with plans to regulate the use of water, and they're not forgetting those of you at the farm level.

The situation has been exacerbated by a relentless drought that settled in for a fifth year of ruining crops, drying up wells and causing record-low river and stream flows.

The hardest hit area appears to be a swath stretching from middle Georgia through the middle of the Carolinas and into central Virginia. Since the drought began in May of 1998, some areas are 60 inches below normal rainfall — the equivalent of a year's worth of precipitation.

Georgia officials have stated that the prolonged dry spell may become the “new drought of record” by which all other droughts are measured. On the coast, Georgia's shrimpers and crabbers have blamed the drought for decreased freshwater flows into estuaries, causing abnormally high salinity levels.

The Carolinas have been hit especially hard this year. Nearly half of the rivers of North and South Carolina are at record-low levels. At least 50 municipalities in North Carolina and 20 water systems in South Carolina have imposed mandatory water restrictions.

In South Carolina, state officials have estimated that the Pee Dee River could essentially dry up within the next several months, closing nearly all the industries and water suppliers along its banks.

Georgia officials say the worst drought were the dry spells between 1939 and 1955. But the dry weather that has gripped much of the state for the past four years may very well be a new drought of record, they say. Climate data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the 12-month period from July 2001 to June 2002 to be Georgia's fifth driest year in 108 years. And the Carolinas were even drier.

South Georgia especially is feeling the heat, with almost all rivers at extremely low levels.

It's true enough that you can't do anything about the weather. But you can make sure that your voice is heard as officials throughout the South begin the ominous task of divvying up water resources.

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