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Drought's effects linger even in winter

(MCT) — As in Decembers past, corn and soybean farmer Joe White is busy hauling grain miles from his Kane County farm to sell at corn intake facilities in Chicago and elsewhere. But this year's load is lighter because his crop suffered in the drought.

"I had a 25 percent reduction of corn this year," White said. "The corn was attempting to pollinate during those 100-degree days in July, and the heat interfered with the process. The size of the ear is reduced too."

What's more, he has been driving his corn to intake facilities this year instead of selling it to be put on barges headed south on the Mississippi River. The river's record-low levels have drastically slowed transportation along the highly traveled thoroughfare this fall and winter, causing many farmers to seek more reliable ways to move their harvest.

While the summer's brown, brittle lawns and sizzling sidewalks are just rearview images for many Chicagoans, White and others are still grappling with the effects of one of the worst droughts in Illinois history.

As of Wednesday, precipitation at O'Hare International Airport for 2012 was 9.63 inches below average. About 40 percent of the state is still in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The drought started in the spring, but the worst came in June, July and August. The U.S. Department of Agriculture deemed 98 of Illinois' 102 counties natural disaster areas in early August because of crop damage and losses. By that time, the entire state was suffering from drought levels varying from moderate to exceptional, according to Drought Monitor.

For suburbanites, the drought meant sprinkling restrictions and yellowed grass. For farmers, the lack of water affected their bank accounts. White said he lost about 45 bushels of corn per acre totaling $135,000.

For farmers who irrigate, water bills spiked because of huge price increases this year.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers began blasting and dredging a six-mile stretch of the riverbed near Thebes, Ill., about 20 miles north of Cairo, spokesman Mike Petersen said. The work will help ships navigate the river during low water levels.

Wade and Kim Kuipers, who own an apple orchard, pumpkin patch and Christmas tree farm in Maple Park, Ill., east of DeKalb, said the year's unusual weather underscored how important the orchard is to their operation.

An unseasonably warm March followed by an April freeze destroyed much of the area's apple blossoms. The couple managed to save 60 percent of their apple crop after investing in a frost fan, but Kim Kuipers said the loss still hurt.

"This year told us we really need to buckle down and watch every penny during a tough year," she said.

After the freeze came the drought. Only half of the sapling apple trees planted in spring survived — and none of the Christmas trees planted this year made it through the summer, Wade Kuipers said.

"We have to replace the trees that died, so that automatically affects our bottom line," he said. "Three or four years down the road, we'll still have a shorter crop."

Wade Kuipers said the year's sales are down 8 to 12 percent. The recent moderate temperatures helped increase traffic to the Christmas tree farm, he said, but couple's focus has shifted to spring.

"A mild winter and a late spring is key," Kuipers said. "The longer those trees stay asleep, the better we are."

The state activated its Drought Response Task Force in June. The group spent the summer monitoring the drought, coordinating the state's response and educating the public about water supplies and how to reduce the drought's impact, according to the group's website.

Arlan Juhl, water resources director for the state Department of Natural Resources, said many of the problems related to long-term planning for water use.

"There were issues with the power industry draining water from rivers that are drying up," Juhl said. "When there's low-flow restrictions because of a drought, many industries do not have alternative plans of how to operate.

Rick Cobb of the state Environmental Protection Agency's Division of Public Water Supply said the same problems affected municipalities and local water supplies. The city of Decatur, for example, used 50 percent of its reservoir and had no backup plan.

Decatur was saved by rain in late summer and fall, but Cobb said the task force is encouraging it and other municipalities that rely on one source of water to look for alternatives in case of emergency.

"There's a new emphasis on appropriate public water supply," Cobb said.

Juhl said the state needs to address how competing towns and businesses share water when supply is limited — and explore alternative water resources as potential backups.

"There are no regulations for regional or state government in terms of water management," Juhl said. "When there's competition for water, you're simply left to go get what you think you need. Many municipalities and industries use the same supply — then they're left with no water in the river."

The task force is working to point out the problems to officials, he said.

As bad as things were in 2012, State Climatologist Jim Angel said the drought could have been worse. Rain from Hurricane Isaac changed the complexion of the drought moving into September.

Before that, it was "every bit as serious" as the droughts of 1934, 1936 and 1988, he said.

He, like others, is looking ahead to 2013 to see whether the land and water resources will have a chance to recover. But predicting rainfall or temperatures for the year after a drought isn't easy, as there's no pattern to follow.

However, Angel says he hopes average precipitation in 2013 could bring soil moisture levels back to normal.

"I'm more worried about the rivers, lakes and groundwater resources than the soil," he said. "They're still lagging behind and usually struggle a lot longer."

Juhl said most Illinois streams are at or near low-flow conditions, and despite excavation efforts, parts of the Mississippi River could still reach a "critical state" in January.

WGN-TV meteorologist Steve Kahn said low water levels on the Mississippi River and parts of Lake Michigan are becoming serious. In some places, water traffic could stop completely if rain doesn't help the bodies of water recover, he said.

"(Drought) is going to be a continuing problem unless we get a marked increase in precipitation," Kahn said. "We need a lot of precipitation in the next six to nine months or we will be looking at a disaster in terms of farming and crop production. We really need to get rainfall."

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