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U.S. Rivers at Historic Low

Rivers in the U.S. fell to historic low levels during the past months. Using U.S. Geological Survey data that tracks the flow of rivers nationwide, researchers have identified 59 points on 57 rivers that reached record low levels in March.

This analysis showed that 40 of those points also reached a record low in one of the months of December, January or February. Less water flowed down these rivers than at any comparable time in at least 30 years and, in many cases, as long as 80 years.

Using temperature and precipitation data, federal scientists calculate that severe or extreme drought has spread over 21% of the United States. More than half the states have been affected, among them almost every single state along the East Coast. Only those states along the West Coast and in the Mississippi Valley have been spared.

The total area stricken by drought is only slightly larger than normal for this time of year. But experts say the severity and persistence of the drought is much worse than normal.?What?s unusual is we?re seeing some pretty intense multiyear droughts,? says Mark Svoboda, of the National Drought Monitoring Center at the University of Nebraska.

Also unusual is the wintertime drought that effected the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to the southern coast of Georgia. Despite the arrival of spring rains, soils and reservoirs in the East are still extremely dry. Unless there are torrential rains in the next few months, residents in places such as the Philadelphia and New York metropolitan areas might not be able to water their lawns or wash their cars this summer.

The drought is already having severe consequences in rural communities. More than 1,000 wells have gone dry in small towns in Maine, where some residents have been forced to haul drinking water from springs in the next town.

Farmers in the Southeast are facing stunted crops. Ranchers in the Northern Plains are being forced to sell off their herds, even their land. Marina owners, innkeepers and outdoor guides in tourist towns from New York to Wyoming are hoping for wet weather. ?Keep your fingers crossed and think snow for the West,? says Dick Larsen of the Department of Water Resources in Idaho, where the snow season lasts until mid-April. Melting snow is necessary to fill the reservoirs.

This was the nation?s second-driest February since reliable record-keeping began in 1895. The period from Sept. 1 through Feb. 28 ? the months meteorologists count as fall and winter ? was the driest for seven states (Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia) and the second-driest for four more (Maryland, North Carolina, Rhode Island and West Virginia). Maine had its driest winter in the 108 years that records have been kept. Many areas in the Mid-Atlantic region are 15 inches or more below their normal precipitation for the period starting July 2001 and ending in February 2002.

Researchers looked at data on more than 3,000 rivers from the U.S. Geological Survey, which collects daily readings from 4,800 points along those rivers. The results identified 59 sites on 57 rivers that fell to historic low levels. Most were concentrated in the East, especially the Mid-Atlantic region, where rain and snow have been scant for months or years.

New Jersey has eight of the 57 rivers, partly because a relatively high number of the state?s rivers have measuring devices on them, says Robert Schopp, a hydrologist with the New Jersey office of the U.S. Geological Survey. But the ?main reason,? he says, is ?rainfall has been deficient.?

Virginia accounts for seven. ?It comes as no surprise to us,? says Ward Staubitz, who is the chief of the geological survey's Virginia office in Richmond. ?We?ve had wet periods and dry periods, but cumulatively we?ve had less than normal precipitation over the last four years.? Things have been so bad in Virginia and other states that government officials have had to impose limits on water use.

Residents of Roanoke, Virginia can?t water their gardens except between 7 p.m. and 10 a.m. Homeowners in Atlanta are taking turns using their lawn sprinklers. Restaurants in southeastern Pennsylvania can serve water only upon request. New York City has imposed mandatory water curbs that have shut down ornamental fountains, prohibited washing sidewalks and curtailed watering lawns. Maryland will soon put restrictions on dry counties in the central parts of the state. New Jersey?s governor has imposed statewide curbs on car washing, ornamental fountains and other water use.

In Idaho, most farmers who grow potatoes, corn and other crops depend on water from melting snow to irrigate their fields. But this year, the mountains feeding the state?s major source of irrigation water, the Snake River, have 20% less snow than normal. This is the third bad winter for Idaho in a row. State spokesman Larsen says, ?We need far above average just to get us back to normal, and we?re not getting that.?

In Colorado?s mountains, snow levels are 40% below average. Unless there are unusual April blizzards, this also will be the third consecutive year of low snowfall. That?s bad for reservoirs and irrigation canals, which normally fill with melted snow. ?If things don?t change, what you?re going to see on the news [this summer] is fires,? says Reagan Waskom, a water resource specialist at Colorado State University.

Across Maine, there was less snow by mid-March than in all but a quarter of the winters on record. More than 1,000 private wells have run dry. Some residents have been forced to fill up jugs of drinking water at outdoor springs or from faucets in public buildings. ?The real concern is this spring,? says Dana Murch, a member of Maine?s drought task force. ?We?re draining these big lakes. If they don?t fill up again, the loons may not nest and the bass may not be successful in spawning.?

In Georgia, the dry spell that started in 1998 is being compared to the great drought of the 1920s. Statewide water restrictions may be tightened. ?We will not be able to receive enough rainfall in March ? unless something extremely unusual happens ? to recharge the groundwater, to recharge our streams and reservoirs,? says state climatologist David Stooksbury. ?Things do not look very hopeful for this summer.?

In the Southeast, one cause of drought was the La Ni?a, which affected the region from 1998 through early 2002. La Ni?a first showed itself as a big pool of cold water in the Pacific Ocean off South America. It changed the course of the jet stream over the U.S. and moved storms away from the Southeastern states. That led to dry summers and dry winters, which left rivers and reservoirs at low levels.

As Idaho?s Dick Larsen says, ?It?s about survival.?

To learn why, these days, it seems to flood in some places while there are droughts in other places, read ?The Coming Global Superstorm? by Whitley Strieber and Art Bell, now only $9.95 for an autographed hardcover, click here.

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