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Sunday, December 18

"Large Regions of U.S. Damaged by Drought in 2016"

By CAMERON MCWHIRTER and JIM CARLTON
December 15, 2016
The Wall Street Journal

[emphasis mine throughout]
Wildfires and damage to trees, crops and livestock the result of continued drought in parts of U.S.
Droughts sparked deadly wildfires, killed tens of millions of trees and damaged crops and livestock in large regions of the U.S. in 2016.

Major regional droughts hit the U.S. this year in the Southeast, California and New England—and all developed differently. But changes in the earth’s climate mean regional droughts and other “extreme events are going to be more common than in the past,” said Brian Fuchs, climatologist at the Nation Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln.

The Southeast saw a “flash drought” this fall that hurt cattle ranchers and production of hay, peanuts and other crops. After a hot and dry summer, the early fall saw no rain in much of the region. “The summer didn’t end,” Mr. Fuchs said. “It expanded itself into November.”

Forests fires in southern Appalachia—some that officials believe were intentionally set—quickly spread in dry conditions, destroying or damaging hundreds of buildings and polluting the air as far away as Atlanta and Charlotte. In late November, at least 14 people died in fast-moving fires in and around Gatlinburg, Tenn. More than 6,000 firefighters, some from as far away as Alaska, were brought to the South to combat the blazes.

States including Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia have imposed outdoor fire bans and other measures during the drought. The National Park Service closed portions of the Appalachian Trail for weeks, disrupting hikers and businesses along the popular trail.

[...]

California is heading into a sixth year of drought, although conditions have eased in the northern third of the state following abundant rain and snow last winter and above-average precipitation this fall. The California drought has hit the state’s big agriculture sector the hardest, forcing farmers to fallow vast acreages and lay off workers. Exacerbating that situation, farmers have complained, has been federal pumping restrictions put in place a few years ago to protect endangered fish.

Overall, farmers in 2016 idled about 79,000 acres, costing 4,700 jobs and total economic costs of $603 million, according to estimates by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. That was a big improvement from 2015, when the center calculated that 540,000 acres were idled at a cost of 21,000 jobs and $2.7 billion in economic impacts.

Last year at this time, 97% of the Golden State was in some degree of drought compared with 73% in 2016, according to estimates by the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center.

The rain and snow that has fallen heaviest in Northern California have helped refill reservoirs depleted by drought, prompting state officials earlier this year to lift a mandatory 25% cut in urban water use imposed for the first time statewide in 2015. Folsom Lake near Sacramento, for example, now sits at 61% of its capacity compared with just 14% at this time a year ago—-rising more than 18 feet since just Dec. 1.

But state and federal water officials warn Californians not to become complacent, because the state’s most important rain-producing months are still ahead this winter after a drought that has left deficits in groundwater and reservoirs. The drought has also been partly to blame for the deaths of an estimated 102 million trees since 2010, adding to California’s fire danger, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s important to know that although we are off to a good start, we need to maintain the momentum,” said Louis Moore, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office in Sacramento.

In New England and upstate New York, a severe drought, the worst since 2002, has caused wells to go dry, rivers to drop and crops to wither. “It really took some folks by surprise,” said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

[...]

Winter rains brought relief to some sections of the country, though it is unclear whether drought will be a major problem in parts of the country in the coming year.

[END REPORT]

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