|WEATHERING THE DROUGHT|
August 2, 1999
KWAME HOLMAN: More than two weeks of blistering summer heat and years of sparse rainfall have produced a drought of record proportions in parts of the country. The severe dry spell centered on the Northeast, with the mid-Atlantic region suffering most. The West has been hit, too, though not quite as hard, and other areas are on drought watch, with drier-than-usual conditions. But the situation is not as dire in the nation's midsection, which produces many crops. The blistering heat is blamed for nearly 200 deaths, mostly the Midwest. The high temperatures and rainless days contributed to poor air quality in many cities. Some local governments have placed restrictions on water usage, banning watering lawns and washing cars. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman's tour of West Virginia farms took him through some of the most severely affected areas in the nation. Joined by West Virginia's senators, he saw parched cornfields where the stalks are only knee-high, and talked to farmers about their withering crops. The declaration of disaster areas will allow farmers to qualify for low-interest loans from the federal government. And in Washington, President Clinton promised additional help.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We're also working with local governments and private agencies to help farmers get water and hay to keep their livestock alive. It's literally a problem for them to keep their livelihoods alive. I am also committed to working with this Congress to provide the resources to help our farmers and ranchers to deal with the crisis today, and by fixing the farm bill for the future.
KWAME HOLMAN: Despite forecasts of falling temperatures and some rain in the Northeast this week, drought conditions are predicted to continue in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions well into the fall.
|Drought and heat wave, together|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Margaret Warner takes it from there.
MARGARET WARNER: Joining me, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and D. James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service. Welcome, gentlemen. Mr. Baker, first of all, tell us, what is a drought?
D. JAMES BAKER: A drought is a lack of water. In fact, what you see is not enough rain, the heat dries up the soil and so you just have a lack of water. Right now that's what we're facing all over the East, as we face a deficit of somewhere between eight and eighteen inches of water that we need.
MARGARET WARNER: So what does it take to qualify as a drought versus just a dry summer?
D. JAMES BAKER: We'll call it a drought if it's 10 percent less water than normal. And some of these areas are getting 50 to 100 percent less. So we're seeing what we call extreme drought in this those areas. But 10 percent less than formal is what we call a drought.
MARGARET WARNER: And then what is the relationship between the drought and the heat wave we've been having? Does one cause the other? Does one exacerbate the other?
D. JAMES BAKER: The two go together, because if you have a heat wave, it will evaporate the water. Once the water is gone, the heat will make the soil warm up even faster. So these two things have kind of what we call a positive feedback. You have a heat wave, you're likely to have drought. We get these every summer but we're getting longer and longer ones. So this is the thing we're concerned about.
MARGARET WARNER: And in historical terms, how does it rate, stack up in terms of severity?
D. JAMES BAKER: Well, this in the East this is the second worst drought that we've had since the beginning of the century. So it's a very serious one. We're also seeing some droughts in the Pacific Northwest and also down in the Southwest. All the monsoon rains have helped out a little bit there.
MARGARET WARNER: How you would you rate it in terms. The impact it's having?
DAN GLICKMAN: I would rate it very severe, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region, partly because they've had no rain, as Jim just talked about, and partly when you consider the fact that we have some of the lowest crop prices that farmers are getting in modern history, the farmers are getting a double whammy. They're getting very little crop being produced and then the prices they're receiving are very low. And that is a particular problem in the mid-Atlantic region.
|What kind of an impact?|
MARGARET WARNER: Are we looking at farmers just having no crop at all this year, reduced crops?
DAN GLICKMAN: Well, today I visited both corn and soybean farmers, both of whom have lost virtually all their crop, and there's very little likelihood that they will have any value out of that crop. But, you know, some people will be luckier. I saw some sweet corn producers, apple producers who will do a little better. We've had these kind of spotty rain showers. So, if you've been under a rain shower, you might be able to get a better crop. But by and large this is a region of the country that has a lot of small farmers, they produce fresh fruits and vegetables, produce for the urban markets, there's a lot of livestock, their pastures are burning up, and these are droughts that I've seen a lot more in my part of the country, the central part of the country, the central part of the country -- but like we had last year in Texas and New Mexico and up all the way up into North Dakota. But this is a drought that we have not seen in 50, 60 years in this part of the country.
MARGARET WARNER: When you look at the country as a whole, though, in terms of the impact on agricultural output and food prices or food availability, is it going to have a measurable impact?
DAN GLICKMAN: At this stage it will not have a national impact because the area affected is not a major producer of food, like if you were in rural crop country in the heartland or if you're in California where all the fresh fruits and vegetables are in South Florida or in South Texas; however, regionally, it may have some impact in terms of the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in Philadelphia, in New York, Washington, and Baltimore, and these markets, and it could affect prices; it'll also affect livestock producers because they'll have to bring in hay and other forage and it could affect meat availability and prices as well. But it is fairly regional right now.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you add in terms of impact, Mr. Baker, in terms of the non-agricultural impact?
D. JAMES BAKER: Well, we're seeing an impact on water supplies. We see that generally wherever we have a drought, and also wildfires. Right now this year we've experienced two and a half million acres of wildfires. That's 50 percent more than normal -- and about half of those in the Alaska. So this is also a serious problem. And you mentioned heat. Drought and heat tend to go together. And, in fact, next to cold, heat is one of the biggest killers that we have during the summertime. So this is also a serious problem.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, was this predicted at all?
D. JAMES BAKER: This particular drought was not predicted. But we did predict the overall patterns. Summertime is one of the hardest times for us to do the forecasts. But we're doing a better job now, now that we know something about the El Nino and La Nina conditions. Right now the cold water in the Pacific is causing a jet stream to be North up in Canada, and it contributes to this kind of persistent pattern of the jet stream that leads to the drought patterns that we have. This is something that we're learning how to predict because we're measuring the effects of the ocean on the atmosphere and on the weather, something new. We're able to do it now, and we're doing a better job.
MARGARET WARNER: If a drought can be predicted, is there something farmers can do to anticipate to minimize the damage?
DAN GLICKMAN: The one thing is we need a much better crop insurance risk management system where farmers can protect themselves against loss, particularly drought. Drought is not an overnight event; it's kind of a long, insidious type of process. And so you got to -- by and large our protections and disaster have been more cataclysmic like flood, or tornado, wind storms. And we can do a much better job there. In addition, our researchers can and they are working on ways to produce more drought-resistant crops, crops that can be grown in arid conditions, don't need as much water. And this is probably part of the biotechnology revolution of the next millennium and the next century.
|A long time in the making|
MARGARET WARNER: How long was this particular drought in the making?
D. JAMES BAKER: Well, this drought has been around for at least a year. One thing we have to remember about droughts is that they start and they last for a long time. In fact, we're predicting normal August rainfall, but that's not going to eliminate the drought. We need to have somewhere, as I said, between eight and 18 inches. That's a couple of tropical storms to give us the water that we need.
MARGARET WARNER: And do we usually get tropical storm in this mid-Atlantic region? Not really.
D. JAMES BAKER: Sometimes we do. In fact, we're predicting a stronger-than-normal hurricane season this year as we did last year because of these La Nina conditions in the Pacific. And we should expect to see some tropical storms. There may be a couple that come up here. Of course, they have other ugly effects with the wind, as Dan was mentioning. But if we can get some rain out of those, that would be good.
MARGARET WARNER: Can you say that we're at the turning point? I mean, in the life duration of a drought, is there a turning point? And do you know when it's happened or is it only after the fact that you say, ah hah, that's when it started to --
D. JAMES BAKER: It's usually after the fact. But I can tell you that as we look to the winter now, there are some areas of the United States that we expect to be dry. That's the Southwest and the Southeast. And where we have some drought there now, you'll see that continue. So we're looking for some areas where we may have some long-term drought.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think that the bottom line for farmers is going to be, Mr. Secretary? Do you think at the end of this year that we will have farmers go out of business permanently, in part because of this drought?
DAN GLICKMAN: I think some of it may depend on what Congress does. I mean, if we get an emergency assistance package passed, which Congress is debating now and we did that lat year and we will have to do it again this year, and if we structurally look at some farm bill changes which I think help farmers cope with the volatility of both the weather and the international marketplace, I think we can reduce the number of exits from agriculture. But there is no question both the weather and world volatility prices are making life very, very difficult for family-size farmers.
MARGARET WARNER: When you talk about the emergency spending bill, are you saying the administration will support this extra $10 billion that some Senators are talking about?
DAN GLICKMAN: Well, let me put it like this. We're going to support an emergency package. We're working with Congress on it. We haven't endorsed any specific amount yet but there is a clear need for an emergency package.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, thank you both very much.
DAN GLICKMAN: All right, thank you.