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From Corn Belt To Main Street: The Drought's Far-Reaching Grasp

The sun shines above a farm near White City, Kan., in November. (AP)

The U.S. had its hottest year on record last year. That heat, combined with the relatively dry winter that came before, has brought a historic drought.

From forest fires and low crop yields, to infrastructure and recreation, the drought has been costly, with early estimates putting the cost at between $50 billion and $80 billion.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared a disaster area in more than 1,000 counties, and now the drought is hitting America's most important waterway — the Mississippi River. Water levels are so low that the Army Corps of Engineers is taking emergency action to keep the river navigable.

"This is critically important to the economy of the Midwest and of the nation," Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters a few weeks ago.

But beyond the dusty plains and dry rivers, the ripple effects of the drought are now being felt throughout the U.S.

A Not-So-Mighty Mississippi

Even if it doesn't look dry outside, you've no doubt seen the effect of the drought: higher food prices, water main breaks, dried-out lakes and most recently, a very empty Mississippi.

That river is the country's most important waterway. Everything from fertilizer to corn and coal are shipped along the winding river to cities across the country.

With 3,100 barges and 100 towboats, AEP River Operations, a St. Louis-based barge company, usually moves about 70 million tons of cargo on inland waterways each year. But this year has been different.

"With the drought scenario we're in on the Mississippi, the low water conditions has just about brought the river to a close," says Marty Hettel, manager of bulk sales for AEP. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden that in current conditions, the company is operating at less than 45 percent shipping capacity.

So far, Mother Nature and the Army Corps of Engineers have kept the river open for business. The St. Louis area got some rain a few days ago, helping raise the river level a couple of feet. Hettel estimates levels are now about 6 feet below normal, but recent work by the corps has him optimistic.

"We'll have enough water to operate at least through Feb. 7 or 8, and I'm really thinking it will be beyond that," he says. "What happens from that point forward is up to Mother Nature and how much rain she can give us."

Farms Hit Hard

One of the biggest commodities shipped on the Mississippi River is grain, but in some parts of the country, like the Texas panhandle, there's a lot less of it to ship.

The Texas Panhandle is still in the grip of drought. For the third year now, ranchers and farmers in Amarillo have been searching for signs of moisture. In 2012, they had a second record low of just 12 inches of rain, up a little from the year before, but not enough.

"If this goes on, we're going to be forced to sell our cows this next spring," says Phillip Smith. He and his wife, Doris, have been farming and ranching the land in Amarillo — growing wheat, grain sorghum and hay for cattle — for more than 50 years.

The Smiths tell Lyden that they have already sold off a lot of the herd, and this year might be the last for the "Sunshine Ranch," as they've dubbed their farmstead. As the drought began, Phillip Smith says, submoisture allowed them to produce a "less than average" crop for two years, but this year they might not be able to grow anything.

"There is nothing growing on [the fields], it's pretty much bare ground," Doris Smith says. "Even the crops that we did plant in the late summer and early fall, because of the lack of moisture, those crops have died."

Their farm is just one example of what is happening across the U.S., she says, and when agriculture suffers, we all suffer.

"If you eat you are involved in agriculture [and] this really affects everybody," she says.

Tracking Droughts

Climatologists are hesitant to link any one drought to climate change, but there is consensus there will be more severe dry spells in the years to come. Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., helped create a drought tracking system about a decade ago. He says that many people didn't realize drought is one of the leading causes of economic loss in the country.

"The main goal was to heighten visibility of drought as a natural hazard that affects millions of people [and] covers millions of square miles across our country," Svoboda tells Lyden.

More than 60 percent of the country was under drought conditions at the drought's peak in 2012, Svoboda says. What sets this drought apart from previous years is how long it has lasted.

"A large part of the affected area[s] really are going into year two now," he says, adding that some parts of the U.S. are even heading into a third year.

Svoboda says dry conditions brought on by droughts can cause respiratory problems and that losing a livelihood can affect mental health.

Dry soil, coupled with poor infrastructure, can also lead to water main breaks. "In Houston, normally they might see 200 breaks a day," he says. "They were seeing 700 a day during the summer months."

There is not a lot that can be done to be "drought proof," Svoboda says, but a more conservation mentality might help when times get tough.

"Even when times are good, let's preserve that water [and] get it back in the ground so that we can tap into it when times go dry like they are now," he says.

Svoboda says he expects the country to be locked into the drought at least until spring.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Feeling the heat, 2012 was the hottest year ever on record in the U.S. And together with the lack of rain, it's brought on an historic drought.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The worst drought since 1956.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Every plant, corn plant out here has these dead dry leaves attached to it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...likely mean higher food prices.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...drought disaster of 2012 has far reaching effects...

LYDEN: Drought is devastating. Think hundreds of forest fires, drought is costly. Think low crop yields. It will break your water main or your home foundation. It will ruin your holiday, drive up your grocery bill. Just ask a climatologist.

MARK SVOBODA: This drought could end up dwarfing the drought of record economically, which was the drought of like 1988, 1989, and it's not over. So to put it into context, I can't even do that yet. But we're hearing early estimates of anywhere from 50 to $80 billion.

LYDEN: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared a disaster area in over 1,000 counties now. So whether you're a dry land farmer in Texas...

DORIS SMITH: We have never been in such an extended drought or as extreme as it is in these last three years.

LYDEN: ...or an Illinois Senator like Dick Durbin talking about how low the water is on the Mississippi.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: This is critically important to the economy of the Midwest and of the nation. Literally, billions of dollars worth of goods travel that Mississippi River.

LYDEN: This drought is coming to your front door. Our cover story today: the ripple effects of drought.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Even if it doesn't look dry outside, even if you're in a wet spot right now, an historic drought is seeing us into this new year. Let's start with the low water on the Mississippi. It hasn't been this low since 1989. Marty Hettel is a manager for AEP River Operations. That's a St. Louis-based barge company, and its hundreds of barges and towboats are traveling in sort of convoys that sit higher in the water.

MARTY HETTEL: With the drought scenario we're in on the Mississippi, the low water conditions has just about brought the river to a close.

LYDEN: To open the Mississippi and its billions of dollars of freight, the Army Corps of Engineers turns to dredging to deepen the river bottom, putting places like Thebes, Illinois, on the map.

HETTEL: Well, in these type of conditions, we're limited to a 15-barge tow, so we're actually operating at less than 45 percent of our capacity right now.

LYDEN: The Corps of Engineers has been working hard to deepen the shipping channel. What's happening?

HETTEL: That's a great story we got last week. Originally, the Corps wasn't going to be able to be on site down at Thebes, Illinois, to remove the rock pinnacles before February 4th.

LYDEN: What are the rock pinnacles at Thebes, and what do they have to do with the story?

HETTEL: Well, normally, the river's a sandy type bottom. However, you get down to the actual rock bottom of the river at Thebes and a pinnacle is like a boulder of rocks on the bottom of the river, rather than sand or mud that the Corps can dredge. So hence, they have to manually remove it.

LYDEN: I see. So is that what they did?

HETTEL: That's what they have been doing since about, I believe, December 16th they got in there. So that, in effect, gives us two more feet of depth in the river by removing these rock pinnacles that stick out above the bottom of the river.

LYDEN: So how do you think things look moving ahead? Are you optimistic?

HETTEL: I am a lot more optimistic from the word we received from the Corps last week. Long-term predictions for Thebes looks like we'll have enough water to operate at least through February 7th or 8th right now. And I'm really thinking it's going to be beyond that, you know, at least through the 15th of February. What happens from that point forward is up to Mother Nature and how much rain she can give us.

LYDEN: That's Marty Hettel. He's manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations, a St. Louis-based barge company. Mr. Hettel, thank you for being with us.

HETTEL: Happy to be here.

LYDEN: Everything works together. One of the biggest commodities shipped on the Mississippi is grain. But in some parts of the country, like the Texas Panhandle, there's a lot less grain to ship. The Texas Panhandle is still in the grip of a drought. For the third year now, ranchers and farmers in Amarillo have been searching for signs of moisture. Last year was the second record low, 12 inches of rain, up a little from the year before but not enough.

PHILLIP SMITH: If this drought continues on, we're going to be forced to sell our cows this next spring.

LYDEN: That's Phillip Smith. He's already sold off a lot of his herd. This year might be the last for the Sunshine Ranch - that's what he and his wife, Doris Smith, call their family place.

SMITH: We've had a decent livelihood, yes, ma'am, until the drought hit us about three years ago.

LYDEN: I understand that you've been in this house since 1964. Tell me, if you would, Phil, what changed three years ago, the drought came. How did things change?

SMITH: Well, Doris has been in this house all her life. We married and moved into her folks' property. The drought, as it came on, well, we were fortunate enough to have some moisture and were able to produce a less than average crop for two years. But this year, we're probably not going to produce anything. And that is our livelihood.

LYDEN: Are you entirely dependent on rainfall? And if you are, what kind of crops are you growing?

SMITH: We're growing hard red winter wheat, grain sorghum or milo and then a hay forage crop for our cattle.

LYDEN: Doris, what do your fields look like now?

SMITH: There is nothing growing on them. It's pretty much bare ground, which is the reason why we're having to feed up the hay bales, which Phillip had purchased in the summertime, because Phillip is feeding every single thing that the cattle eat. So there is nothing left for the cattle to graze on. And then even the crops that we did plant in the late summer and early fall, because of the lack of moisture, those crops have died.

LYDEN: I am so sorry to hear that.

SMITH: Jacki, I want you to understand that we're not just an individual farming unit that is out here that is suffering from the drought. I mean, this is very widespread. And when you consider that if you eat, you are involved in agriculture, this is really affecting the whole nation. It affects everybody. When agriculture is down, and agriculture is being depressed, the entire world is affected by that.

LYDEN: That's Doris and Phillip Smith. We reach them at their ranch, the Sunshine Ranch in Amarillo. And we really want to wish you very good luck. And thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story.

SMITH: Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

SMITH: Thank you. You come and visit us anytime you want to.

LYDEN: Climatologists are hesitant to link any one drought to climate change, but there is consensus that there will be more severe dry spells in the years to come.

Mark Svoboda is a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. And about a decade ago, he helped create an international drought tracking system. You can click on the map and see how your county is doing.

SVOBODA: When we first started the idea conceptually, people didn't realize the drought on average is the number one cause of economic loss in the country or at least on par in rivaling hurricanes. And when you went around the country and talk to folks, they just weren't aware of that fact. So the main goal was to heighten visibility of drought as a natural hazard that affects millions of people covering millions of square miles across our country.

LYDEN: So this past summer, as we know, droughts across the Midwest and the Southwest were as bad as they've been in 50 years. How bad was the drought overall in the U.S. last year?

SVOBODA: We saw over 60 percent of the country, nearly two-thirds, at its peak there in August, September, depending on where you were. The thing that differentiates this year's drought from, say, the 1950s or the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, right now, anyway, is the duration component. The large part of this affected area really is just going into year two now. When you do look at the Southern Plains or the Southeastern United States where they are having issues again, like around Atlanta with Lake Lanier, Texas to Mexico, Oklahoma, you do see that being a year three drought.

LYDEN: Mark, you talk about hoping that the two-year cycle has completed itself in - with 2012 passing, but what do you see when you look ahead?

SVOBODA: You know, everywhere, say, east of the Rockies, this is the dry time of year, so you're not going to expect to see major recovery at least during the winter months. Unfortunately, it wasn't an overly wet fall, so I think we're going to be locked into this drought until spring. When you get that rain, it isn't just one inch, if that's normal, per week. That sounds great. What we really need is two inches per week.

LYDEN: Mark, you're out in the center of the country, but we know that people are affected besides just, say, agricultural people. Who does drought impact?

SVOBODA: Well, that's the thing about drought. It is very crosscutting across many economic sectors, which makes it one of the most costliest hazards that we see out there. Obviously, people see it sort of in the grocery store when they talk about food prices, but there's a lot of other things we're seeing happen. Things like physical and mental health are a big thing. You know, we saw a lot more complaints of allergies and respiratory illness given the kicking up of dust and winds with the heat waves. That's been a big thing.

You see increased suicides with people that are literally losing their livelihoods if they've had a farm or ranch through multiple generations that's been lost. It's a tragic thing. Droughts are very local in their impacts. And, you know, we've seen a lot of issues with water main breaks across the U.S., especially in the midsection, from Minnesota, Wisconsin, all the way down to Texas.

For example, in Houston, normally, they might see 200 breaks a day. They were seeing 700 a day during the summer months due to the dryness of the soil as well as the aging infrastructure. It's not just the drought, but a lot of these things are wreaking havoc on our infrastructure.

LYDEN: Mark Svoboda, job projections are getting more severe. Is there any kind of preparation? Many cities are accustomed to preparing to some degree. For tornadoes, you can build a shelter. For hurricanes, you absolutely vacate, things like that. What about drought? Is there any way to prepare for it?

SVOBODA: Yeah. I don't like the word drought-proofing because you can't stop droughts from occurring. What you can do is reduce your risk to those droughts. And, you know, even the ability to catch rain off your roof and use it for a garden, to reuse it for those types of purposes a lot of places that's not allowed. So we have to think out of the box a little bit and become a little bit more flexible on how to maximize and capture as much of that water as we can to reuse locally.

Those types of steps are things, I think, that we can do. The basic infrastructure ones are the easy ones. It's the more conservation mentality that even when times are good, you know, let's preserve that water, get it back in the ground so that we can tap into it when things go dry like they are now.

LYDEN: That's Mark Svoboda. He's a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. And he joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Mark, thank you very much.

SVOBODA: My pleasure, Jackie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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