updated 7/11/2006 11:58:27 AM ET 2006-07-11T15:58:27

After dealing with far too much water, southern Louisianans must now cope with far too little: In the century that records have been kept, the region has never been so dry.

The drought started in April of last year, and since then only hurricanes Katrina and Rita have overfilled rain gauges. Despite devastating flooding, climatologists worry Louisiana is on the verge of exceptional drought conditions.

For a subtropical Southern state abundant with water, drought has many ways of manifesting itself: Marshes threaded by bayous are burning. Upland rivers look as sandy as New Mexico arroyos. Sugar cane, dairy and beef farmers face heavy losses if the drought worsens, said Donald Gohmert, state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

For now, consumers aren’t likely to feel a pinch because Louisiana contributes relatively small amounts to national agricultural markets, Gohmert said. But hard times are driving some growers off the farm.

In many places, rainfall has been 20 inches below, compared to the average of 60 inches the state gets each year on average.

“We’re experiencing the climatology that’s usually experienced west of us in east and central Texas,” said Luigi Romolo of the Southern Regional Climate Center at Louisiana State University. “If we don’t see rainfall soon, conditions could become quite catastrophic.”

One silver lining: the drought has aided the rebuilding of southern Louisiana. Debris has been easier to remove, though many mountains of it remain. A string of sunny days have made things easier for crews repairing the roof of the Louisiana Superdome and fixing miles of levees.

Cracks in clay levees
But the levees, Louisiana’s primary means of flood protection, also show signs of hurting because of the drought. Cracks several feet deep have formed in places as their clay banks shrink. Engineers say they’re monitoring the cracks but that they don’t pose much danger because they fill in with a good rain.

The emergence of typical summer storms have helped the situation somewhat.

Still, the usual north-south flow of water in the swamps has changed because there’s so little water draining into the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the Gulf’s salty water is sloshing inland.

“The tide movement isn’t like what I used to see,” says James Bonvillain, a tour guide who makes a living in the Mandalay swamps 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. “I can see the water move back and forth everyday.”

In Louisiana’s sugar cane belt — the typically lush, subtropical land west and northwest of New Orleans — the land has become so scorched that farmers are crossing their fingers and praying for tropical storms, even hurricanes, to rise out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Small hurricane welcome to some
“Right now I’d take Lili back,” stammers Robert Judice Jr., the 61-year-old co-owner of Frank Martin Farms near Centerville, where cane growing has been a way of life for 200 years.

Hurricane Lili, a Category 1 storm at landfall in Louisiana, swamped Judice’s fields with torrential rains in 2002. At the time, farmers cursed Lili because it mowed down so much cane; now those losses look minor compared to the drought.

Jessie Breaux, a 55-year-old farmer, says it would cost millions of dollars — in other words, way too much — to install a sprinkler system or dig irrigation ditches for his cane fields. And besides, he said, cane fields are built to drain water, not retain it. Cane stalks are grown on raised beds to keep the plants out of standing water.

The uniqueness of the drought is illustrated in the 450,000 acres of sugar cane fields where irrigation is unheard of. It’s never been necessary.

“With 60 inches of annual rainfall, who worries about irrigation?” said Paul McIlhenny, a sugar farmer who is also chief executive of the McIlhenny Co., the maker of Tabasco hot sauce. “I don’t know of any sugar cane farmer who irrigates.”

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