Local area drought conditions are being compared to 1988, another benchmark year. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor placed Kosciusko County and other areas nearby in northern Indiana in the extreme level. That’s just below the highest category of exceptional.
Mike Sabones, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service Office near North Webster, said through nearly the end of June the amount of rainfall recorded was at 9.44 inches (not including Friday’s storm). “The normal amount of rainfall should be about 17 inches,” he commented. There has been some variation elsewhere, he added, such as in Fort Wayne and South Bend where rainfall amounts have been higher.
Friday’s rainfall during the storm system did help, but the area is still considerably behind the amount needed simply to be at the normal stage. Depending on the location, a few areas received slightly more than 1 inch of rainfall Friday.
Although some may be focusing on the most recent weather conditions with the above average temperatures (it topped 100 degrees Thursday for the first time in more than a decade), Sabones said the stage was really set back in March.
“March was the key month,” he said. “The average temperature was 14 degrees above normal in Fort Wayne, which was the warmest March ever by far. That really set the stage because we lost precious soil moisture and there has been nothing to feed the storm systems coming through.”
Warmer than normal temperatures have been the norm recently. Including June, the last nine months have had warmer than average temperatures. When the temperatures climb into the hot stages, precipitation is evaporated quicker and things dry out faster.
Humidity levels have not been extremely high, he said, but there is even a negative consequence to that. “The downside is there is not enough moisture in the air,” he added.
At least the short term forecast does not offer much hope for significant rain. “Any change will only be for the worse,” Sabones said.
Farmers naturally pay very close attention to the weather. This year has been anything but a normal growing season. “It got warm too early and we just about went from winter to summer,” said Rich Schlipf, who farms corn and soybeans west of Milford.
None of the acreage he farms is irrigated, he said.
Many variables are involved in the condition of farm fields, he said. Whether the land is tilled or not and the type of soil are two important ones. “Any sandy or gravel type soil is really struggling now,” he said.
Schlipf is maintaining a positive attitude, however, and though he knows there will be some yield loss for sure, he is not ready to declare the crop a total loss. “I don’t believe we are at the point of no return yet,” he said, recalling in 1988 there were decent rains in August and “we still got a decent crop.”
But, he noted, critical stages for corn are approaching soon such as the corn sprouting tassels and then the pollination process. “If it is hot and dry during the pollination stage, then that is very critical,” he noted.
Hotter temperatures are not as bad when the air is cooler at night, giving the crops time to rejuvenate. “But if it doesn’t cool off much at night, the hot days are magnified,” Schlipf said.
Gabe Ayers, Clunette Elevator, said in contrast to 1988, this year’s crops were planted much earlier and are suffering at a different stage. He cited tassel emergence and pollination, too, saying if the stress level is too high and causes the two processes to be out of sync, it can cause plants not to pollinate.
Soybeans, he said, still have a better chance of producing a good yield because their yield stage is determined in late July to August. But the soybean plant has to stay alive to reach that point and the high temperatures and humidity have caused diseases, which can’t be treated once the plant is attacked.
Concerning irrigation, though it does clearly help it can still fall short. “The farmers who have irrigation are running ragged to keep up with watering their crops at this time,” Ayers said. “The irrigation systems are not designed to be the main water source for a crop; they are designed to supplement slightly below average rainfall.
“With that being said, irrigation cannot replace natural rain.”
Ayers said he hopes the general public appreciates what farmers are going through. “This takes a toll on the entire system from food, fiber and fuel,” he said.
Lawns without sprinklers, if not already dormant this year, are very close to that stage. Curt Hursey owns a lawn care business near Lake Wawasee and said many of the sprinkler systems are drawing water from the lake but since the water level is down, the piping has to be extended.
Those without sprinklers are “fighting a losing battle because it is just too hot,” he said of those using just a garden hose, for example. “I have not seen it this dry this early in the year,” he said. “We usually don’t see yards burn up this early.”
But even some sprinkler systems are not 100 percent accurate. “We have seen some systems that leave dead spots due to overlapping,” he said.
A slow, steady rain lasting for several hours is needed so the water will soak will into the ground, he said.
Tom Thornburg of Teghtmeyer Ace Hardware in Syracuse has used sales to gauge the effects of the dry conditions. Sprinkler and watering system sales are way up, he said.
“Every Monday morning, we’re totally depleted,” Thornburg said. “Luckily our warehouse has kept up pretty well, but we’re sold out of one or two of the seven lines we sell. I’m not sure how much longer we can keep up.”
Although some sales are up, others are down because of the drought. Grass seed and fertilizer sales have dropped compared to past years at this time.
“Most people I talk to haven’t mowed for a month,” Thornburg said. “Unless you have a good watering system and schedule, fertilizer can be a scary thing.”
Additionally, Thornburg has noticed bug spray sales have been slow. While he said the dry weather doesn’t effect fleas or tics, it seems to keep the mosquitoes away.
But the lack of pests seems to be one of the only benefits of the drought. “I’ve heard some horror stories about these conditions,” he said. “We’ve been lucky to keep our sales pretty balanced.”
While the rain the past few days has helped bring some green back into the yards around town, Thornburg stressed the importance of a good watering schedule.
“I know people that live in town pay for their water,” he said. “Those people, especially, should avoid watering at the peak sun time. Instead, you should water in the early morning or in the evening, when it’s only 85 degrees and not 100.”
Hursey also operates a boat detailing and maintenance business and said the lower lake water level has created problems. “Boats are not coming off the lifts because there is not enough water,” he said.
Cpl. Ken Dowdle, conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources, said depending on the lake water levels are down considerably in some places. “It depends on the lake because every lake has its shallow spots,” he said.
For example, some stretches of shoreline along Lake Wawasee are already low even in normal conditions. “Some people can’t get their boats on the water from the slips,” he said.
Boaters need to be even more cautious in those areas that are shallow even in normal conditions. And in those areas not normally shallow, it can be dangerous. “These are glacial lakes and we do have boulders and rocks,” he said.
It’s more incentive for boaters to abide by the 10 mile per hour speed limit. “You need to know where you are at,” he said.
This has been the driest year Dowdle has seen in his 17 year career with DNR. “We had very little snowfall this winter to add to the source of water,” he said. “Then we had a very dry spring.”
A lack of ice has also caused more weeds to grow in lakes, he added.
Staff Writer Michele Sokol added to this article.