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Recent rains too late to help most farmers

Industry feels little impact from months-long drought

Recent rains have been welcome relief from a long summer of drought that had some industries worrying that low-flow conditions could affect their ability to withdraw water for operations. But the rains didn’t come soon enough to help most farmers.

Ricky Gray, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, said the rains came too late to do much good for commodity farmers.

“The rain did more damage than good especially for cotton and soybeans,” Gray said. “It made it too wet to harvest, and could have some impact on quality of the cotton fiber.”

Tommy Gregory, state statistician for USDA, agreed the recent rains were little help with crop production.

“It is really too late for most of the row crows,” Gregory said. “The worst drought in terms of crop production is in the northeast in the Tupelo area. It was also bad south of there. But as you go north, it gets worse. Up in the whole northeast region is where the worst impact has been on production.”

Since most of Mississippi’s agricultural production is in the Delta, the drought is not having as big an impact on state average yields as might be expected.

“The yields are down in the Delta, too, but they haven’t been hit near as bad as the Northeast,” Gregory said. “It has not been a catastrophe in the Delta. The recent rains will help pastures across the state, and that is important. There is still some time for grass to grow before the winter sets in. Most people had a fairly good spring hay crop, but it certainly shut down in the summer because of the drought.”

The drought also caused some industries to apply for permits to allow them to continue to operate under low-flow stream conditions. No industries had to actually cease operating due to permit restrictions on withdrawing water during the period of low-flow.

“There are a number of industries that have been concerned who have come forward to the state permit board, and are requesting certain things to be done that will allow them to continue to operate under low-flow water conditions,” said Charles Branch, head of the Office of Land and Water Resources for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

Branch said two of the applications were for industries on the Leaf River that experienced low-flow conditions earlier that have been alleviated by recent rains. One is Mississippi Power Company’s Plant Eaton electric generating facility in Petal. The other is Georgia Pacific in New Augusta, which uses an average of 18 to 20 million gallons per day.

“They are in a situation where they requested variances in order to continue to withdraw and discharge if we go below low-flow conditions again,” Branch said. “The amount and frequency of rainfall would control whether we go back under those low-flow conditions in the stream. They didn’t have to shut down. Conditions didn’t reach that point.”

Both facilities have applied for permit modifications to allow them to continue to operate if low-flow conditions occur again.

“We’re moving to have a permit modification,” Branch said. “This is just a precaution that would allow them to operate if they so need to.”

Kurt Brautigam, a spokesman for Mississippi Power Company, said while the power company did receive an exemption to draw water out of the Leaf River during low-flow conditions, it wasn’t necessary to use the exemption.

Brautigam said Plant Eaton is a peak power plant that normally only operates during the hottest period of the summer when electricity demand it the greatest. Most of the water withdrawn from the river by the plant is put back in the river after being used for cooling purposes.

“We put the same amount back in the river,” Brautigam said. “We do have an exemption during low-flow times, but right now it is above the low-flow numbers. The lack of rain really hasn’t affected us. We have certainly been monitoring the Leaf River and the Pascagoula River in Jackson County, but the low rainfall has not affected our operations.”

Branch said the state has permit restrictions on the amount of water that can be withdrawn at low-flow in order to protect water quality, fish and wildlife. He said withdrawal of water is a less critical issue in the cooler seasons of the year.

“Cooler temperatures mean higher dissolved oxygen levels in the stream, so low-flow is not as much an issue,” Branch said. “And, of course, fisheries resources are not under as much adverse effect at lower temperatures. It is one thing to have low-flow when temperatures are 95 degrees, and another when it is 75 degrees. A whole series of variables can come into play when you have a low-flow condition as to the environmental condition of the stream.”

Only two cities in the state, Jackson and Tupelo, rely on surface water sources for drinking water. Branch said they aren’t experiencing any problems due to the drought, and no problems are anticipated.

The drought of the summer of 1999 didn’t last long enough to cause concerns about the recharge of groundwater sources. Branch said recharge of the deeper groundwater sources is a very slow process that isn’t impacted by a one-year drought, although more shallow groundwater levels could be affected temporarily.

Although it has been worse in some areas than other, generally the drought has been statewide. On average most areas of the state have received seven to 10 inches less of rainfall the average for the year.

“Hopefully beginning in the fall part of year, we will start to see normal or above normal rainfall,” Branch said. “That won’t totally alleviate the situation, but it will make it something we can cope with until we receive rains that will bring us back to a normal situation.”

Branch said there have been no reports of fish kills or other problems associated with the drought.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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