Whitesburg KY

State representative urges citizens to conserve water

At first glance, the headline in the New York Times looks like it could have been written today: “Water Scarce in Kentucky; Drought Causes Suffering All Over the State.”

The story noted that the drought “is unprecedented in the history of the Weather Bureau. … Everywhere in Kentucky there is an alarming scarcity of water.”

While the article sounds familiar, most of us weren’t around when it was written, in November 1904.

That drought may have been worse than the one Kentucky is now experiencing, but the competition is close. February through August was the seconddriest in the Commonwealth since records were first kept in 1895. Early this month, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recognized that fact by declaring the whole state a disaster area, making farmers eligible for emergency loans.

Kentucky has the fourth-highest number of farms in the country, so that news is certainly welcome. According to the state’s Dept. of Agriculture, the April freeze and the ongoing drought have damaged about 50 percent of Kentucky’s forage. Hay is down 1.3 million tons for the year, and large bales are going for $100 and up.

That is putting cattle farmers in a difficult spot, causing many to cut back. Cattle sales were 50 percent greater this past summer than in 2006, which is significant in a state that has more cows east of the Mississippi River than any other and the eighth most overall. Given the investment we have made in our genetics program, this widespread sale could be felt for years to come.

The early freeze and hot weather are having a terrible effect on our wildlife in eastern Kentucky as well. Dried-up streams and the lack of nuts and other food are forcing animals like elk, deer and bears to travel farther to find something to eat and drink. That’s increasing the number crossing our highways, threatening their lives and ours.

State officials warn against feeding bears, no matter how charitable it seems. Human food can cause problems like arthritis and tooth decay, and wrappings like aluminum foil can damage digestive systems. Bears can become aggressive if they become too used to humans, so it is wise to stay at least 100 yards away from them and 25 yards from other large animals.

As difficult as this year has been weather-wise, an official with the state’s ag department told legislators recently that there already is some considerable worry about next year. That’s because we started this year with adequate water, something very unlikely in 2008 without a very wet fall and winter.

Our hope is that we follow the 1999 drought model, which could mean a wet year in 2008. However, if this year is more like the drought of 1930, which led to the Dust Bowl, the next decade could be a long, hot one.

For now, the state is doing all that it can to help. Some of the “model” programs that farmers use to improve such things as their forage, livestock and fencing are being made more drought-friendly, and there has been some discussion among legislators to see if, during the upcoming legislative session, we can authorize more state funding to help in the short-term. A hay hotline has been set up for those wanting to buy as well as sell. That toll-free number is (888) 567-9589.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is helping by making its 13 reservoirs more available to communities. Authorized farmers, for example, will be able to access the water for their livestock, but not crop irrigation, through next August, unless drought conditions subside.

When looking at a nationwide precipitation map, it is easy to see a definite split right down the middle. Many of the western states and most of those in the South are suffering, but Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and several others farther north have in many cases had too much rainfall. States like Louisiana, Mississippi and those in the Northeast aren’t experiencing widespread water problems of any kind.

More than 30 water systems across the state have called for limiting use, and three of those – in Warren, Simpson and Magoffin counties – have gone the next step to declare a water shortage warning. Letcher County officials are calling for cutbacks, and there are advisories in Fleming-Neon and Jenkins. Hopefully, a planned connector will ease water problems in the region.

We are down about nine to 10 inches of rain on average, and with October traditionally the driest month of the year, that figure is unlikely to improve in the weeks ahead.

There is always the possibility that could be made up quickly, of course. The record daily rainfall for the state this month was 5.6 inches near Madisonville back in 1910. That’s about half of the record-setting day, which happened in Muhlenberg County on June 28, 1960. That soaker brought 10.4 inches of rain.

As we wait for the drought to end, our only true option is conservation. I want to thank those of you who have taken steps in this direction, because every drop truly counts. If you would like to do more, consider installing lowflow shower heads and toilets, insulating pipes to preserve hot water and planting landscaping that is well-suited to the climate.

Those wanting to go further should consider retrofitting their home’s plumbing to capture “gray” water from their washers, sinks and bathtubs. If the appropriate soap and detergent are used, that water is ideal for plants and lawns.

Although I do not have the power to make it rain, I can help you in other ways if it is an issue involving state government. If you would like to contact me, my address is Room 466B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305. My personal telephone number is (606) 444-6672, while my cell is (606) 477-6672. My email address is Leslie.Combs@lrc.ky.gov.

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