ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Nobody has to tell landscaper Eric Pope that
the last few months have been some of the driest on record in many
parts of the South. All he has to do is look around at all the
patchy, dusty yards.
"If this is any indication of what it's going to be like," he
said, "it's going to be a rough year."
While it's too soon to predict a return to the searing drought
that gripped the region two years ago, water officials say the dry
patch during some of the normally wettest months of the year
doesn't bode well for crops or the threat of wildfires.
Many cities in the Southeast experienced record and near-record
dry conditions - less than 20 percent of the normal rainfall in
many parts - from October through March. The federal Drought
Monitor map placed much of the Southeast, including most of
Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, in the "abnormally dry"
category, the first of the five drought alert levels.
Atlanta; Montgomery, Ala.; New Orleans; Charleston, S.C.;
Tallahassee, Fla.; Columbus, Athens and Savannah, Ga., all reported
one of the driest months of March on record.
Mobile, Ala., had its driest March in 163 years, with rainfall
totaling 0.42 of an inch - 6 percent of the normal for the month.
In northeast Florida, Apalachicola posted its driest March ever,
with 0.06 of an inch - about 1 percent of normal.
"These are really pretty startling numbers," said Victor
Murphy with the National Weather Service's Southeastern Regional
Headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.
So far, the dryness has not threatened water supplies or led to
water restrictions. And national forestry officials say the early
wildfire season has been active, but not unusually so with about
107 large fires in 13 Southern states from Texas to Virginia.
Florida has seen several large wildfires early in the season,
including some that forced people out of their homes.
Farmers in the heart of the dryness - Georgia and South Carolina
- say the lack of rainfall has actually helped make the early peach
crop sweeter by not diluting the sugars in the fruit.
But if April's rainfall is also low, there will be a major
concern going into the peak of the growing season because soils dry
out starting in May, said Georgia state climatologist David
Stooksbury.
"If the next six months are anything like the last six months,
yes, we're going to be in major problems throughout the region. But
that's a big 'if,"' Stooksbury said. "We still have April."
The situation can turn around quickly. Record wetness across the
region last May, June and July helped undo much of the damage done
by a four-year drought that ended in 2002.
The weather service's extended forecast for April, May and June
calls for more dry conditions along the Gulf Coast and near-normal
rainfalls expected across the rest of the Southeast.
Still, landscapers such as J.D. Cook in Athens remain concerned
about a possible return to mandatory water restrictions.
"It's hard to plant plants in the summer anyway," he said.
"But without water, it's impossible."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)