Stenger: Water Levels Secure Despite Drought Conditions

September 01, 2010

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Matt Kelly:

September 1, 2010 — Virginia is in a drought. Or not. It depends on your perspective.

While the ground water is doing well and reservoirs are relatively full, the state has suffered a severe agricultural drought because of record high temperatures and below-average rainfall.

"In the Charlottesville area, we have had the fifth-driest summer on record, since they started measuring this in 1895," University of Virginia climatologist Philip J. Stenger said. "It has also been the hottest summer on record. Because of the high temperatures, the moisture loss through evaporation has been higher than usual."

Stenger said the moisture in the topsoil, which even in a normal summer is not usually replaced with rainfall, is severely depleted.

"It is necessary to agriculture to have sufficient levels of rainfall at critical periods in crop development," said Stenger, a research scientist in the College of Arts & Sciences. "Thunderstorms are the primary source of precipitation in the summertime and they can be widely spaced, with precipitation from one location to another varying greatly."

He said the parched fields have been a disaster for the corn crop. Pasture production was hard-hit, and some farmers have had to sell their herds because of lack of feed. "Others are already feeding from their hay supplies, which they would have usually saved for winter," he said.

While the lack of water near the surface is causing trouble, the ground water supplies are adequate.

"Despite the headaches caused by the snow this past winter, that is what is keeping us from seeing water supply problems so far," Stenger said.

He said the region should also see some benefit from tropical storms during this hurricane season. More storms than usual have been predicted for this year and with the season reaching its high point, there may be several storms following in rapid succession.

"Getting widespread amounts of rain in a short period of time can change moisture conditions," he said. "It will come too late to save most of the crops, but it could have a positive impact on water supplies for months to come."

Hurricane Earl, a dangerous coastal storm rated as Category 4 on the five-point Saffir-Simpson Scale, should not have much impact locally, Stenger said. The storm's tight winds should keep the rain from spreading west of Interstate 95.

"It is sweeping close to the coast and most of the rainfall is expected in the eastern portions of the state," he said.

-- by Matt Kelly