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Emergency well drilling brings relief to farmers stricken by drought

By Thanh Truong, NBC News

WARREN COUNTY, Mo. --  There's a desperate search for water under way throughout Missouri where 95 percent of the state is enduring extreme levels of drought.  In the rural area of Truxton, farmer Rusty Lee estimates he'll likely lose 40 percent of his crops.

We walked through his withering fields where rows of yellow squash lay shriveled under the sun.  Lee said he's been trying to explain the severity of the drought to his 6–year-old son William.

"I try not to talk about our losses money-wise, economic-wise, but I want him to understand that this drought … will go down in history and that he probably won't see something like this in his lifetime," Lee said.

He is one of more than 3,700 farmers and ranchers in Missouri who have been approved for emergency well drilling.  Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order last month for the state to pay up to 90 percent of the cost to dig new or deeper wells for farmers severely impacted by the drought.  The farmers will pay the remainder of that cost.  So far, the state has set aside more than $18 million to dig these new wells.

"We've been praying for rain, you don't know how much these wells help us," said long-time cattle rancher Michele Christopherson.

Early Thursday morning, her farm was bustling with noise.  A two-person crew, equipped with heavy drilling equipment, started digging the 540 feet necessary to hit fresh water.  Christopherson's current well doesn't have enough capacity to keep her 100 head of cattle hydrated.  She's had several die from the heat and several others have lost their calves.  Between the $10,000 she's already had to pay for hay and the estimated $12,000 she'll have to pay for the new well, Christopherson said this year will be one of losses.

"We're tough, that's how you got be when you're doing this kind of business, but nobody can sit there and say they can handle that kind of hit.  We certainly can't," said Christopherson.

By noon, the crew hit pay dirt.  Water gushed out of the ground.  Christopherson stood near her fence, smiling at the sight.

A few miles down the road, fellow cattle rancher Peggy Ebbesmeyer was eagerly waiting her turn.  The pond that usually serves as the main watering hole for cows is drying up and the little water left in it is warm and green.

"My cows lose five pounds a day by drinking this water.  There's not much I can do without rain," said Ebbesmeyer.

To supplement the rancid water, she's been hauling water from a town 12 miles away to her farm.  That's been a daily trip for two months.  Ebbesemeyer figures she's lost between $40,000-$50,000 after several head of cattle died and others were sold early.  

But for now, she will likely have to wait until the end of August -- along with thousands of other farmers -- for the drills to arrive.  

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