Drought conditions felt throughout Clay County

Thursday, July 26, 2012
In a dryland field north of Rector, soybeans struggle to stay alive in dry dusty earth which hasn't seen significant rain in weeks. (Times Democrat photo)

The current drought conditions facing the area are among the worst in recent memory. High temperatures and far below average rainfall have combined to make the outdoors nearly unbearable at times for many and the impact is being felt in a variety of ways.

The dry conditions have led to an increase in the use of water storages, both for personal and professional use.

In the case of farmers, most producers have been forced to irrigate fields at an alarming rate, using not only more water, but also requiring greater fuel consumption, leading to higher costs for the purchase of additional diesel and propane.

"I'm using more water by Far," Bret Palmer, who farms with his father Terry near Holly Island, said. "We started irrigating in May, and that's something I've never had to do."

Most fields in the Piggott and Rector area are irrigated. Typically, the need for supplying crops with water is offset by Mather Nature's own gifts. With the severe drought--recently classified as D2 and reaching more than eight weeks in duration to qualify for designation as a disaster--wells and pivots are being taxed with additional use.

"Fields that aren't receiving regular irrigation are burning up," Andy Vangilder, Clay County Cooperative Extension Chair said. "Some guys are running their pivots every other day and some are running them 24 hours. We've had some small showers in spots, but most places haven't had much in the way of significant rain."

Area farmers are a resourceful lot, doing everything in their means to protect their fields.

"It's the worst (drought) we've had since '83," David Simmons of Rector said. "You hate having to water all the time, but there's not much else you can do."

The drought has also been felt by cattle producers. With little to no rain replenishing grassy fields, livestock grazing has been severely limited, requiring the purchase of feed. The additional expense of purchasing more feed is compounded by the increasing cost of hay, a crop which production has been halved or worse in the region by the drought to prices which have soared to over $120 per dry ton.

On the residential side, water usage has increased considerably in Piggott and Rector. According to City of Piggott utilities manager Brian Haley, water usage increased to over 14 million gallons for the month of June, up more than one million gallons from 2011, which was also a dry period. Piggott's usage was in excess of 12 million gallons for May, up more than two and one-half million gallons from 2011. Rector's usage soared to 8.3 million gallons last month, up from 5.5 million gallons in 2011 and 4.493 million gallons in 2010. Factors such as increased hydration due to the heat, the greater need for watering lawns or gardens due to less rain and recreational uses (pools, etc.) are among leading causes for the increased usage.

In terms of water availability, Clay County is in a better position than many other areas. According to information obtained in annual collection by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, the presence of ground water in Clay County is among some of the most abundant in the state, with levels higher than many surrounding areas. Still, consumption is having an impact, with water levels steadily declining, albeit at a slower rate than most other areas.

Ground water forms naturally in what is called an aquifer, spaces in the soil or fractured rock where water is able to pool. Ground water eventually collects at the surface, forming springs, seeps or wetlands. The depth underground at which ground water pools is the water table. Clay County has a considerably shorter water table than many other areas, with most of the water in the county found between three to 50 feet underground. As water collects here, it is able to reach the surface at a faster rate than an area with a deeper water table.

Still, with Clay County containing approximately 2,400 wells pumping out an average of 2,000 gallons per minute, the need to replenish and conserve resources is a constant.

"Hopefully, it'll replenish when this (drought) is over," Tommy Smart of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Piggott said. "That's yet to be seen, though."

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