Irrigation working overtime during drought

Thursday, July 26, 2012

SIKESTON, Mo. -- Record-breaking dryness in Southeast Missouri has also meant earlier -- and more frequent -- use of irrigation for local farmers.

"It has been busy," said Jerry Whittington, manager of Mid-Valley Irrigation in Charleston, Mo. "We stay busy most summers, but this one has been a little bit unusual."

Whittington said they started irrigating corn earlier than usual -- around May 1.

"We usually don't start until June, and, of course, it's been nonstop. The season has been busier but also longer," Whittington said.

In this region, the dryness really began in April, Whittington said.

"It started early and has continued up until now with just spotty relief in some places. It won't let up until the corn is done," Whittington said.

Dr. Patrick Guinan, state climatologist, said Southeast Missouri's dryness from April through June was unprecedented.

"We're trenched in this heat wave and dry, below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures -- and we don't need any of that," Guianan said. "There's no near-end of this in sight."

All of the counties in Southeast Missouri are still classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor as having a D3, or extreme drought, while a portion of Mississippi County is categorized as D4, which means exceptional drought, Guinan said.

"It doesn't get any worse than D4," Guinan said of the levels. "D4 is the worst drought condition they have."

Southeast Missouri has been in these D3 conditions since April -- longer than the rest of the state, which experienced the dryness later, Guinan said.

Missouri is divided into six climate divisions. Scott, New Madrid, Mississippi, Pemiscot, Dunklin, Butler and Wayne counties make up Division 6, Guinan said.

April, May and June total precipitation average for the Bootheel for 2012 was 3.23 inches.

Records date back to 1895, and the next lowest number for that April, May and June period was in 1988 when the average for the Bootheel was 5.53 inches.

The long-term normal average for the time period is 13.44 inches -- which is less than 25 percent below normal.

Joe Henggeler, irrigation scientist for the Missouri Delta Center in Portageville, Mo., said growers are using one or two more irrigations this summer than they normally would.

Guinan agreed.

"The irrigation is creating better crops, but it's hitting growers' pocketbooks in regard to how much earlier they've had to apply and the fuel to do that," Guinan said.

"It's a perfect storm," Henggeler said. "The high costs of fuel and the drought making it where you have to pump more water, adds to it a lot."

In 1997, farmers were paying an estimated $10 an acre for fuel. Today, they're paying $25 to $30 or more an acre, especially if they're a rice grower because rice requires more water.

"Fortunately, the commodity prices are fairly good and keeps it from being a total disaster," Henggeler said. "During the winter, it will bounce back."

"There are some positives to a drought, but the negative is the people who don't have enough irrigation or a high percentage of irrigation are really going to suffer because they won't have anything to sell," Whittington said.

There's also a lot of fields laying without a crop on them because growers had no water to bring them up and no irrigation, Whittington said.

Whittington said he's also noticed some wells around the region are beginning to show signs of dropping water levels.

"That's something you usually don't see when you're getting the normal rainfall each year. ... That means wells will be pumping from a deeper level," Whittington said, adding a few people have had to drop their pumps deeper into the wells to pump water.

Water tables are being affected somewhat, Whittington said.

"The river level is really low, thus, the water tables are really low," Whittington said. "As you get closer to the river, water levels are dropping more there."

In the meantime, Southeast Missouri will continue to wait for more rainfall.

"Not only has the rainfall been the lowest it's ever been, but there's also been highest temperatures recorded," Whittington said. "When you combine those two, it really makes it hard on these crops, and they just die."

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