Drought conditions develop in Georgia, leaving plants dry

It’s no surprise that it’s hot, very hot, in Georgia during the summer. But the region’s typical humid heat hides an increasing drought along the state’s coast and reaching Piedmont.

The U.S. Drought Monitor recently designated several counties in southeast Georgia as “severe droughts,” which manifest as stressed crops, low hay yields, delayed planting, hard soils, and conditions that are dustier than usually. At this point in the drought, the monitor states that small streams begin to dry up, rivers are lower, and tree mortality begins.

In Piedmont, “abnormally dry” conditions have increased this month.

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Aimee Conner works in one of the greenest places in Savannah: a nursery. At the Savannah Secret Gardens retail store, she said the company is making some adjustments to prevent browning and keep the greenery lush.

“This is the hottest week we’ve had,” Conner said Friday. She moved some plants out of their normal direct sunlight, and the company runs its sprinkler system twice a day and hand-waters smaller containers that dry out faster.

Others are reconsidering which plants to grow. At the University of Georgia State Botanical Gardens in Athens, horticulturist Brian Santos said the garden is watering well, adjusting its planting schedule and opting for more native plants prepared for Georgia’s hot summers.

The Rose Garden near the Chapel Walk at the University of Georgia State Botanical Gardens.

“We’re trying to focus on putting in a bit more natives who are a bit tougher during these dry spells,” Santos said. “We’re not planning on anything that’s going to have what we call ‘wet feet’, using tons of water, so we can be good stewards of the environment as well.”

“It’s more of a flash drought”

Tim Davis, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Officer for the University of Georgia Extension Office in Chatham County, said that because Chatham is more urban than many of its neighbors, the drought occurs primarily in the neat lawns and withered gardens.

“It’s more of a flash drought,” said Davis, who quickly rushes between the hot weather and the lack of rain. However, no matter how quickly a flash drought comes, Davis said it’s impossible to predict how quickly it will end, and in the meantime, the lack of rain will keep temperatures high across the state.

Part of what keeps the region dry is a seasonal weather pattern, La Niña, which pushes the jet stream farther north, causing warmer, drier winters in the southeast. Every few years when La Niña passes, the southern coast of Georgia is more likely to have the weakest and driest part of the cold fronts, which are not able to generate many showers or thunderstorms.

Davis said that while La Niña brings drought to the region, it paradoxically also contributes to more intense hurricane seasons, and a tropical storm or hurricane would provide much-needed rainfall to alleviate the drought.

What can homeowners do to save lawns and plants?

In the meantime, Davis said he has some advice for homeowners concerned about lawns or landscape plants.

“People who have sprinklers to irrigate are doing it incorrectly,” Davis said, watering their lawns too frequently and for too little time. Instead, he recommends 2 inches of water per week, which can be split into separate waterings, until the rains come.

Neil Dixon, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service regional station in Charleston, said Georgia’s coastal counties have racked up a solid rainfall deficit.

By mid-May, Savannah would have typically received about 14 inches of rain in an average year. This year, Dixon said the Savannah Airport Weather Station reported the city received just 7.36 inches of rain.

Effingham County faces an even worse drought. While Chatham County received about half of its average rainfall, Effingham County received just 4.92 inches of rain this year.

“This is the third driest end of winter, through spring, that Effingham County has experienced in 128 years of record keeping,” Dixon said.

So far, the spread of the drought has not stopped. While the severe drought only encompassed Chatham and Effingham counties on May 10, the Drought Monitor published an update on May 19, which included all or parts of Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Long, Bulloch, Evans and Glynn in the severe drought category.

The US Drought Monitor map for Georgia, released May 19, shows significant parts of the state unusually dry to severely dry.

“Instead of (rain) events where we get half an inch to 1 and a half inches of precipitation, we get these events that only produce a quarter inch of rain,” Dixon said. “And even those are more spaced out, instead of every three or four days, it’s about one a week.”

What the region really needs, Dixon said, is a good long soak: a two- or three-day storm with constant rains day and night that allows the ground to soak up the water. And it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: once moisture enters the ground, it helps contribute to future showers and thunderstorms because the area is wetter, which serves as fuel for future rains.

To see weekly updates from the US Drought Monitor, visit drymonitor.unl.edu.

Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist with the Georgia GO team. You can reach her at [email protected]

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