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Farmers welcome Alberto's 'million-dollar rain'

Tropical Storm Alberto spun some gray clouds into southern Georgia Monday, raising hopes that it will bring relief to large portions of the parched Southeast.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tropical Storm Alberto spun some gray clouds into southern Georgia Monday, raising hopes that it will bring relief to large portions of the parched Southeast.

David Stooksbury, Georgia's state climatologist, said only southeastern Georgia has near normal soil-moisture levels for mid-June. Much of north and central Georgia is already in the grips of a mild agricultural drought and the remainder of the state is not far behind, he said.

The City of Atlanta, citing "explosive growth" and dry conditions, joined Forsyth County on Monday in banning all outdoor water use. Other metro counties continue an "even-odd" schedule for lawn watering that was begun during a 1998-2002 drought.

Rainfall deficits ranged from 3.16 inches in Atlanta to 10.21 in Macon. Athens' rainfall is 6.16 inches below normal so far this year, and Savannah's is nearly 9 inches below normal.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, concerned that Atlanta could run short of water this summer, has complained about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' releases from dams along the Chattahoochee River, including reservoirs that supply the city. The Corps says it must release more water this year to protect endangered mussels and sturgeon in Florida.

Still, Georgia has fared better on the precipitation front than Virginia, North and South Carolina and Florida, according to the National Drought Monitor, a weather center that monitors rainfall and deficits.

Large portions of all three states are classified as being in a "moderate drought," and the long, hot summer has not yet begun.

Alberto was expected to move northeast, bringing copious amounts of rain to the northern half of Florida and to large portions of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

"How much rainfall south Georgia gets is going to depend on the track and speed," Stooksbury said, adding that southeast Georgia will probably benefit most because the heaviest rain should fall on the eastern side of the storm.

The forecast called for one-half inch to 4 inches of rain in Georgia.

Alberto's approach was welcomed by firefighters who have been battling wildfires for weeks along Florida's Atlantic Coast and by farmers who have had to run irrigation systems — an added financial burden, given the higher cost of diesel fuel — to keep their crops alive.

"That's a million-dollar rain," said Murray Campbell, who grows peanuts and cotton and raises cattle near Hopeful, south of Albany. His area had received less than three-tenths of an inch of rain since May 13.

Of course, Campbell and others hoped that they could have the rain without the damaging wind that often accompanies tropical storms.

For the Florida Coast, at least, that threat intensified as Alberto's wind strength approached hurricane force on Monday in the Gulf of Mexico.

"That storm, without the wind, would be extremely welcomed in southwest Georgia," said Campbell. "I've got some cows that will be excited about it."

Stooksbury said corn farmers and livestock producers are feeling the effect of the agricultural drought. Peanuts and cotton, two of the state's major row crops, are just reaching the point where they require irrigation.

If the dry conditions persist until groundwater, stream flows and reservoir levels get critically low, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division could declare a hydrologic drought.

Although some farm ponds are beginning to suffer from the dry weather, major reservoirs, such as Lakes Hartwell and Lanier, are in good shape, Stooksbury said.

Even though most Georgia residents live miles from a coast, tropical storms can carry potential dangers far inland.

In 1994, the remnants of another tropical storm named Alberto stalled over Georgia, dumped 2 feet of rain in 24 hours and triggered a flood along the Flint and Ocmulgee rivers. Georgia leaders called it the state's worst natural disaster ever. The flood left 33 people dead, drove 60,000 people from their homes and cause more than $600 million in property damage.