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Long drought all but over

By David Emory Stooksbury
State Climatologist
University of Georgia

The long-term drought that has plagued Georgia since May 1998 is all but over.

Climatologists and hydrologists use five indicators of drought: rainfall, soil moisture, stream flows, lake levels and groundwater level. As Georgians end the year, four of the five indicators of drought are near normal to above normal. Only groundwater levels are slow to recover.

The continuation of the El Nino weather pattern indicates that near-normal to above-normal rainfall should continue across most of the state.

Bountiful rain

Georgia has received bountiful rain since the middle of September. The September rains ended the short-term or agricultural drought.

For many row-crop farmers, the timing of the rain made a bad crop year worse. The rains were too late to help most crops but delayed harvesting of cotton and peanuts. They also lowered the quality of cotton and pecans.

The September rains did revive pastures and allowed cattle and dairy producers to save hay until the winter.

The plentiful rains that started in September have continued through late December. Many locations were near 10 inches below normal in yearly rainfall in early September. The yearly rainfall deficits have been almost eliminated.

Totals nearly normal

With rainfall expected on Dec. 31, all major weather stations across Georgia will end the year with more than 90 percent of normal yearly rainfall. As of Dec. 30, Athens is 95.6 percent of normal, Atlanta 94.7 percent, Augusta 90.8 percent, Columbus 89.4 percent, Macon 89.6 percent and Savannah 95.0 percent.

The wet fall and early winter mean that soils across the state are wet. The National Climate Prediction Center's soil moisture model shows that soil moisture across Georgia has an 80- to 90-percentile ranking. At the 80th percentile, soil moisture would be less in eight out of 10 years. At the 90th percentile, soil moisture would be less in nine of 10 years.

Stream gauge records from the United States Geological Survey show normal to much above-normal stream flows across the entire state. The lowest stream flows are in northeast Georgia, where flows are normal for this time of the year.

Lake levels

Lake levels statewide have shown dramatic rises during December. In west Georgia, since Dec. 1, Lake Lanier has risen more than 4 feet and is now above normal level for late December. The other major lakes in west Georgia -- West Point, Walter F. George, Seminole, Allatoona and Carters -- are also above normal for late December.

In east Georgia, Lake Hartwell remains 2 feet below normal, while Lakes Russell and Clarks Hill are slightly above normal for late December.

The only drought indicator that remains below normal is groundwater level. USGS monitoring wells in south Georgia are showing improving groundwater levels, but levels remain low. Unlike last winter, good recharge of the groundwater is being recorded. With a continuation of good rainfall, groundwater levels should continue to recover through the spring.

More wet weather

With the continuation of an El Nino weather pattern through spring, Georgians can expect a continuation of recent weather patterns. Historically, an El Nino brings above-normal winter and spring rains across south Georgia and near-normal rains across most of north Georgia. Historically, the extreme northwest corner of the state has slightly below-normal winter and spring rainfall during an El Nino event.

While the long-term drought is all but over, Georgians' conservation of the state's water is still needed. In the past 40 years, Georgia's population has more than doubled to more than 8 million. The state's growth has come with no increase in the water supply.

Without an increase in the supply, water conservation is now a fact of life in Georgia. This growth is similar to that in Ireland in the 40 years before the great potato famine.

(David Emory Stooksbury is associate professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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