DECEMBER 09, 2012 5:00 AM •
Without a moderate amount of precipitation this winter and early next spring to replenish the drought-parched ground, parts of Wisconsin could face the same conditions that fueled the worst drought to hit the state in the past 50 years.
“You look back into 1988, and that was a worse drought than this year because, in part, we started out the season with depleted subsoil. If we don’t get our subsoils recharged, we’ll see 1988 again next year,” said Bill Bland, a UW-Madison soil science professor and groundwater expert.
Bland said a snowless winter followed by a dry spring would create conditions at the start of next year’s growing season similar to the driest points of last summer’s drought. Then, he noted, powerful backhoes struggled to dig foundations or graves through rock-hard subsoil — the less fertile layer of earth anywhere from inches to feet under the topsoil.
“Imagine a seed trying to grow in that,” Bland said.
Water savings account
Bland likened the subsoil to a water savings account that salvaged the 2012 growing season. Crops subsisted by tapping that moisture, giving most farmers at least something to harvest this fall. They also were helped by crops that are engineered to have deeper roots that can reach the subsoil.
But one of the driest summers since 1988 depleted that reserve.
“We went into the growing season this year with very favorable conditions, and we had that bank account to draw on. That subsoil moisture bank is what saved many, many fields across southern Wisconsin,” Bland said.
As it stands today, the drought is rated anywhere from abnormally dry to severe in the southern third of Wisconsin. “Multi-year droughts do happen,” said Bland.
Most recently, northern Wisconsin was gripped by drought from 2003 through 2010. The statewide drought in 1988 actually started in 1987 and lasted into 1989 for many parts of the state.
The good news is that Bland believes just an average amount of precipitation — depending on the location, 5 to 7 inches of rain or its equivalent in snow — is needed from now through next April in the southern third of the state to recharge the subsoil and ensure good growing conditions next spring.
The bad news is that climatologists aren’t confident that will happen because a weak El Nino system over the Pacific Ocean is making forecasting more difficult.
While most long-range forecasts are predicting a warmer-than-average winter, only half are predicting at least average precipitation or snowfall, according to professor Jonathan Martin, chairman of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UW-Madison.
Snow is needed to add moisture as well as prevent it from evaporating from the ground, Martin said.
“If we have a winter like last year, when we had almost no snow cover in the southern part of the state, you can begin to lose more water somewhat invisibly,” he said. “Nobody really notices until the spring that the ground has really lost a lot of moisture over the winter. We need snow to prevent that from happening.”
Worse than 2012?
It’s hard for some to imagine drought conditions worse than what the southern third of the state experienced this year.
Crops began to suffer when some parts of the state got only about a half-inch of rain in June, which is on average the rainiest month of the year with over 4 inches in most places. The U.S. Drought Monitor labeled conditions “extreme,” the second-most-severe designation, in southern Wisconsin after below-average rainfall levels continued in July, August and September.
The drought’s effects were felt far and wide.
Corn plants produced little or no grain in places where there wasn’t enough rain to complete pollination. Some farmers cut their losses by chopping their corn early and using the stalks for feed. As grain prices rose, the drought also slowed hay production, putting added pressure on dairy and hog farmers to feed their animals.
There were reports that cows and hogs were being slaughtered across the country at the fastest rate in 25 years. Some large dairy farms, particularly those in California that are more dependent on buying feed, declared bankruptcy. And some ethanol plants slowed or shut down because they couldn’t afford corn — if they could find it.
Some grain farmers benefitted from those higher prices, offsetting corn yields that were nowhere close to the record levels of 2010 and 2011.
The bottom line for consumers was a higher price for dairy and meat products at the grocery store.
The drought is continuing in south central Wisconsin because moisture levels in the subsoil and aquifers are lagging behind despite good amounts of rainfall this fall. “We don’t have crops and landscapes growing, so it’s less terrifying to us right now,” said Bland.
But he didn’t mince words on what would happen if a dry spring and early summer follows a dry winter. “All of the crops will just crash and burn,” he said.
Based on current conditions and Wisconsin’s weather history, Bland believes south-central Wisconsin will get the needed precipitation to recharge the subsoil and groundwater reservoirs. “What would be best is lots of snow followed by a good, slow melt and no subsequent deep freeze,” he said.
Bland was also optimistic that sufficient surface moisture could get the growing season started next May even if the subsoil isn’t completely replenished. “And if rain keeps on track after that, we can have a respectable year,” he said.
Besides pleasing the farmers, that would also make workers at Roselawn Memorial Park in Monona very happy.
Dustin Kohn deals in subsoil every day as he digs graves at Roselawn. He said the ground became so hard last summer that the cemetery’s powerful backhoe needed an extra 15 minutes to dig out a standard grave.
“It got real hard-packed down there when the drought was at its worst. It got hard to chunk it all out of there,” Kohn said, noting that the subsoil is harder to handle than topsoil even when it’s moist.
Kohn said the whole process of laying out a grave, digging it to its standard depth of five feet (there’s no rule that graves must be six feet deep) and then trucking out the soil usually takes about 90 minutes.
“So if it takes 15 minutes longer to dig a grave,” Kohn said, “that adds up at the end of the day.”