08/05/07 — Large areas of Wayne still under drought conditions

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Large areas of Wayne still under drought conditions

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on August 5, 2007 2:01 AM

Water levels in a Grantham-area drought monitor well looked better in July.

Turns out you can't cherry-pick your drought determination data, though.

"We tell people to look at a bigger picture," said Linwood Peele, section chief for water supply planning for the state's Division of Water Resources.

"You can go over one county and it can be very different," Peele said.

State Climatologist Ryan Boyles, an acquaintance of Peele's, agreed. He also called Wayne County a good example of spotty showers.

"We see a mixture of conditions across the region," Boyles said. "Some folks are getting rain and some folks aren't, and it's hit or miss ... There are winners and losers."

Individual well data can be deceiving. Since January, figures from a weather station in nearby Goldsboro show rainfall down more than nine inches from normal.

But the Grantham well's July readings -- near Beaverdam Creek -- probably perked up some Wayne County plant life.

The most recent data from the Grantham drought monitoring well shows water levels stumbling back into the low ranges of normal, owed to intermittent July showers.

That's after a four-month stint where the well's water levels stayed below the monthly average, beginning back in March. The Beaverdam well hit a low point in June, state water data shows, before its mid-July climb.

In general, a rising water table means agricultural fortunes nearby may benefit from more moisture, Peele said.

"That will indicate that the moisture index is changing," Peele said. "It helps in the surface issues, such as planting, crops and those types of things."

A dry year

This year has been a doozy of a dry spell for many areas of the state, with counties at North Carolina's westernmost side feeling driest.

It still doesn't match up to 2002, however, which Peele called "one of the driest years in history." It was followed in 2003 by flood conditions, an unlikely circumstance that Boyles called "fascinating."

That sudden reversal is an illustration of how difficult it is to gauge when a drought begins, ends or has occurred.

Both Boyles and Peele lamented the difficulty in predicting -- and even determining -- the length of drought conditions.

There's no universal definition of drought, notes the American Meteorological Society in an online policy statement. The federal government does have a system of drought classification, however, ranging from D0, the lowest, to D4, the most extreme level of drought.

Although it's not the country's only ongoing drought, the one currently plaguing the southeast is certainly the worst, according to Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center.

The southeastern drought is centered around northern Alabama, where drought conditions have reached D4, or "exceptional," a map rendered by Fuchs shows.

That drought is the one North Carolina is feeling, especially western counties -- Cherokee, Clay, Macon, Graham, Swain -- that sit on its fringes.

One farmer's example

Mount Olive area farmer Charlie McLenny feels Peele's and Boyles' pain on predicting wet or dry conditions. His corn crop is hurting most, he said. Temperatures over 95 degrees haven't helped his crops either, McLenny said, making some things droopier than he'd like.

"The corn -- some of it is too late on making a crop," McClenny said. June is often a critical time for corn, he said. His other crops are doing better, but could stand some rain, McClenny said.

"The showers have been real spotty," McClenny said. "We could get six-tenths of an inch of rain, and a mile down the road, it could rain a tenth."

McClenny said his tobacco crops did notice the mid-July rainfall documented by the Grantham monitoring well.

"That's really helped the tobacco," he said, but now his tobacco and cotton crops need another sprinkling, he said.

"It's needing some water now to fill out the top leaves, just like the cotton," he said. "The cotton, it's in the fruit-making stage, putting on bolls."

Boyles said Wayne County is "a good example, actually" of how spotty precipitation can be.

"If you look, say, over the past 60 days, the northern part of the county, on the order of about 75 percent (has seen) normal precipitation," the state climatologist said.

Travel a little southward, however, and you've got drier land on your hands.

"The southern part of the county, they're below 50 percent of the normal precipitation," Boyles said. "The same time, you could go over into Johnston County -- they may be over normal for the last two months."

Gauging ups, downs

Two ways of telling how parched the landscape is figure prominently within the Division of Water Resources' online offerings. The first are monitoring wells.

The other way is measuring how much water is flowing in our streams -- although a wet stream does not always equate to total drought relief, Peele said.

"Stream flows can be sporadic," Peele said. "If you got eight inches of rain in less than 24 hours, you might see a stream gauge real high, but it may not be a blip on the long term."

For that reason, the Division of Water Resources usually looks at streamflow data for a month or more, Peele said.

The reason for all this uncertainty is that drought conditions are based on predicting rain. Ask a local meteorologist about the difficulty in doing that.

Goldsboro is part of the Upper Neuse River Watershed, a 770-square-mile area that has three major tributaries: the Flat River, the Little River and the Eno River. A system contained by an area that size is going to have a lot of variables, Boyles said. The state climatologist said that mathematical models are somewhat proficient at calculating weather on a global scale. But they fall to pieces locally, he said.

"There are some global weather simulators in place that do a pretty good job," Boyles said. "They're just too coarse on a local scale."

Boyles predicted climate experts could be as much as half-century away from math models that would help predict local drought conditions.

"People want to know, 'How long are we going to be in this drought,'" Peele said. "No one's going to give you the answer. No one can tell the future."