Long drought broken by Fay's wet weather
Published: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 1:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 1:19 p.m.
ATLANTA – The punishing rains that drenched the Southeast as Tropical Storm Fay's remnants stormed through provided at least temporary relief from the epic drought gripping the region. And more rains are expected to soak the South as Hurricane Gustav guns for the Gulf coast.
The deluge has already eased the lingering dry conditions in many areas and elevated some portions entirely out of drought conditions. Even beleaguered Lake Lanier, Atlanta's main water supply, surged more than two feet after the tropical storm.
"It's pretty much what the doctor ordered," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. "This is what we've been waiting for."
But forecasters warned that the hardest-hit parts of north Georgia through the Carolinas and on to Tennessee still need months of above average rains to bust this drought.
The damaging storm thoroughly soaked parched areas that had been locked in a drought since March 2006. Some 45 percent of the region is now gripped in at least a severe drought — down from a 61 percent level just last week.
Exceptional drought, the worst category, persists in only 1.5 percent of the region, an area in eastern South Carolina.
Government forecasters in Alabama say no part of the state remains in the worst two drought categories, which covered much of the state last summer. And about 59 percent of the state is now considered abnormally dry, down from 84 percent a week ago.
"Widespread rain with as much as 15 inches falling in some places will do that for you," said John Christy, the state's climatologist.
The torrential rains also helped pull North Carolina out of the worst category of drought, but scientists there say steadier rainfall is needed to end the drought for good. Heavy rainfall helped the state emerge from a drought in 2002, but it took nine months of steady rain for the groundwater to recover.
"It does seem like in the last 10 years we have been in drought conditions more than we've been out," said Jared Bales, director of the U.S. Geological Survey North Carolina Water Science Center in Raleigh.
Georgia's deluge not only helped elevate the dry southern part of the state out of a mild drought, but it also provided timely cover for a blow to one of the state's most ambitious responses to record conditions.
Officials this week quietly suspended a plan to funnel $40 million of state funds to build reservoirs amid a $1.6 billion budget crisis.
Legislators had praised the proposal as a way to "drought-proof" the state's water supply and hoped the funds could be used to refurbish a band of aging, government-built lakes already brimming with water and help fund a round of new reservoirs.
But the funds are now needed to "safeguard essential government services and programs," said Chris Clark of the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority.
The epic drought forced Georgia officials to ban virtually all outdoor water use and launch a legal battle for water rights. It also prompted Gov. Sonny Perdue to hold a public prayer vigil for rain at the state Capitol, which inspired other groups to follow suit.
"I told you we would break the drought," said Bennie BlueThunder LeBeau, an elder with the Eastern Shoshone in Wyoming who staged a rain dance at the state Capitol in June.
Forecasters, though, say it's still far too early to cheer.
"If this is the only event that we have, this is just going to be a temporary reprieve. The drought's not over," said Georgia climatologist David Stooksbury. "It has been good, but as far as deep soil moisture, recharging the ground water, that's just going to take time.
"You'll see a temporary rise, but you're not going to make that up with one storm. Or even three."
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