Drought conditions have eased, but lessons remain

Photo by Scott Bauer.
There’s no telling when water supplies might once again dry up.

The extreme drought conditions that plagued much of the South during the past several years—most notably in 2007 and continuing into 2008—have eased. Most areas have seen enough moisture return so growers can breathe a slight sigh of relief, but there is hardly an abundance of water, and there remains a concern that the Southeast could quickly slip back into a drought.

No one yet knows what the coming hot- weather months have in store as far as rainfall, but if there’s a silver lining to be found it’s that many growers have given more consideration to water use. In some cases, they have been forced to develop contingency plans, invest in new water-saving technologies, and generally become better prepared for the worst.

Tom Monaco, coordinator of the Southern Region Small Fruit Consortium—which is comprised of researchers from N.C. State, Clemson University, Virginia Tech, and the universities of Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee—says that the drought conditions helped spur more growers to switch to drip and micro irrigation. “I think it helped speed up the shift. Water use and conservation has become a huge issue over the last several years,” he explains. “Really, it’s been ongoing for some time; growers are eliminating overhead irrigation wherever they can, especially with small fruit crops, but even in tree crops. It’s much more cost-effective; there’s a tremendous savings in terms of water use, and these systems are also more effective in putting the water where it’s needed. Overhead irrigation systems are better at growing weeds in between the rows.”

North Carolina, at least the western part of the state where a lot of the tree fruits such as apples are grown, is still experiencing drought situations, says Monaco. “The Piedmont and the Coastal Plains are more or less back to normal. There’s still a deficit in terms of ground water, but they’re much closer to the normal range.”

Photo by Pete Mortimer.
Soil cut away to expose a drip irrigation line in a tomato field.

Even when severe drought conditions aren’t present, low-water-use technologies can pay off by providing growers better control over their water supplies, says Monaco. “Most anybody that is growing small fruits needs irrigation, both for plant growth as well as for frost protection. Most have been pretty secure, either from surface water or wells, or in using wells to recharge their ponds. The biggest issue came up in spring of 2007 when we had a severe Easter freeze. In that case, many of our growers, especially blueberry growers, ran out of water. They had three or four nights in a row when they had to frost-protect. That wasn’t as much a drought issue as they just couldn’t recharge their ponds fast enough.”

Terence McElroy, spokesman with the Florida Department of Agriculture, says growers in that state suffered through severe drought through 2007 and well into 2008 before a midyear tropical storm deluged Florida. “However, during the fall and so far this year it has once again become drier than normal,” he explains, pointing to the severe cold spells that hit the state early in 2009, which are indicative of dry weather patterns. “We’re not as bad as we were in 2007 and 2008, but we’re pretty darn dry again,” he adds.

The drought conditions of the past are still fresh in growers’ minds, and have led some growers to plant “less-water-dependent crops and, in some cases, planting fewer acres,” says McElroy. “Many growers in south Florida, around Lake Okeechobee, draw their water from the lake and were put on severe water restrictions. For nearly a year, they were permitted only 45 to 50 percent of their normal water. Well, if you have 1,000 acres of crops and you have only half your water, you might only plant 500 acres. Before you put $1 million worth of plants and fertilizer in the ground, you want to make sure there’s going to be ample rainfall or that you have adequate access to well water or lake water to irrigate.”

McElroy says there remain some restrictions in some parts of the state about how much water can be used in certain applications. “Certainly, there’s been a general curtailment of use, which of course isn’t really compatible with agriculture,” he explains.

“There is always concern. Florida isn’t arid like a state such as California, but we don’t really have any reservoirs and we don’t have a lot of surface water storage, a lot of it just runs off the coasts back into the ocean. So, getting both available and affordable water for our agricultural community is always a challenge.”

New advances in irrigation technology have helped to conserve water and increase the ability of growers to produce crops using fewer resources, says McElroy. “The idea of the old-time farmer who just irrigates and drops fertilizer whenever and wherever is a thing of the past. Growers are using high-tech drip irrigation and systems with GPS monitoring to show what portions of the citrus grove, say, are driest and need more water. It’s quite scientific and high-tech, because water, fertilizer and all other chemicals cost money. So, if a grower can get by with less, they’ll do so.”

McElroy feels this trend toward a higher-tech, lower-water-use approach has been ongoing for more than a decade, but says that growers “paid a whole lot more attention to it during the 2007 drought, and I think drew some lessons from that time. Sort of like everyone these days, they’re learning to do more with less. They’re using different techniques; buying more sophisticated equipment that saves water; and, in some cases, they’re cutting back on their planting.”

Those lessons should pay off if, unfortunately, the region suffers through another severe dry spell. “That doesn’t mean it won’t be painful, but I don’t think there’s any question that people have become a whole lot better at using less water,” says McElroy.

There’s no telling when water supplies might once again dry up, but for the most part the South has benefited from adequate moisture in recent months. At least in North Carolina, “the drought conditions this past year wasn’t as serious as they were in 2007, when it was very, very serious,” says Dr. Jonathan R. Schultheis, professor and extension leader with N.C. State’s Department of Horticulture Science. The western parts of the state are still experiencing some shortage of water, he adds, but elsewhere in the state the issue has largely moved off the front burner and is no longer the immediate issue that it was a year ago. Still, says Schultheis, depending on weather conditions, “it could become a fairly serious concern again within a matter of a few months.”

Schultheis says that the dire situation of 2007 brought to the forefront several water issues that will need to be addressed in the future. “I think long term, issues such as water rights and being certain you have enough water to grow your crops will be important considerations for growers. Right now, we don’t feel the immediate pinch of a lack of water, but we also have to be aware that things could quickly change. It’s not like we have unlimited amounts of water, and as we go into the future everyone will have to be mindful of that.”

Schultheis says growers considered more carefully how they were irrigating during the drought, but they could only cut back so much. “You still have a certain amount of water that you have to get to a crop,” he explains. “Anyone who’s going to grow vegetable crops has to have their supply of water under consideration, because you need water to grow these crops.”

While he didn’t see any rush on the part of growers to drill new wells or dig new ponds in response to the drought in 2007, Schultheis says that “one thing growers really did consider at the height of the drought was whether to even plant a crop. Some decided not to, because they knew the water levels were so low that they weren’t going to have water and wouldn’t be able to irrigate.”

Skipping crops isn’t the only creative option that some growers opted for in 2007; some switched to a crop with less water-intensive needs. Schultheis says this is something that more growers may consider in the event of future water shortages. “I imagine growers will consider a ‘quicker’ crop: a shorter-season crop as opposed to a longer-season crop. That might help them get through the time period where they need water more quickly as opposed to having to wait, say, 45 more days to get their crop.”

Schultheis reports that many growers have also made the move to trickle irrigation, “which is an efficient way to be able to place water where you need it, right next to the rootzone.” He points out that while this technology saves water, it’s not without costs. “The thing about drip irrigation is that you get into other expenses: buying the plastic mulch, the drip tube, the filters and pumps, and other equipment that you need to apply it properly,” Schultheis explains.

While progress has been made, more thought, research and work need to be done on the water conservation front, says Schultheis. “It’s very important, especially in areas that are becoming more urbanized, and we need to be considering this probably more than we are at the moment. Water use and conservation is not as much on our minds at the moment, but it’s something that’s going to come back in the future.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.