WHEELING - State and local officials are taking steps to protect area residents and their property as drought conditions persist in the Ohio Valley and across much of the nation.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of West Virginia and Southeast Ohio are "abnormally dry." As a result, the Ohio Department of Transportation recently posted message boards along highways throughout the state that read: "High Fire Risk. Do Not Toss Lit Cigs."
"ODOT is pleased to partner with the State Fire Marshal's Office to provide this friendly reminder to motorists. If our collaboration is able to help prevent the devastating wildfires we have seen recently in Colorado and other western states this summer, then our reminder is worth it," said Becky Giauque, public information director with ODOT District 11.
Photo by Scott McCloskey
A Department of Public Works crew waters a dry area near Wheeling’s Heritage Port.
Also on Wednesday, Ohio County's 911 Dispatch Service issued a "No Open Burn" order for this area due to a request by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection/Division of Air Quality.
The drought stretches west to California. It is less severe than the historic drought that gripped Texas and other parts of the Southwest last year, but this year is notable for the ground covered.
"To see something on this continental scale where we're seeing such a large portion of the country in drought you have to go back to 1988," said Brad Rippey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist.
Some cornstalks stand tall in fields in southern Illinois, but appearances can be deceiving. When the husks are pulled back, the cobs are empty. No kernels developed as the plants struggled with heat and drought.
The soil in that part of Illinois is like dust after less than an inch of rain since mid-April. This week, some farmers there packed it in. They cut and baled the withered plants to use as hay for their cattle.
Almost a third of the nation's corn crop is already showing signs of damage, and on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released yet another report predicting that farmers will get only a fraction of the corn anticipated last spring when they planted 96.4 million acres, the most since 1937.
It's too soon to say how that will affect food prices. The cost of meat is most likely to be affected because corn is used to feed cattle, and its price is usually passed along in the cost of hamburger and steak. But meat prices were already rising and were expected to stay high after last year's drought in Texas forced many ranchers to reduce their herds.
Corn also is widely used as an ingredient - in corn flakes to ketchup, bread and soda pop - but it accounts for a small fraction of their costs compared to such things as transportation and marketing.
A rule of thumb is that food prices typically climb about 1 percent for every 50 percent increase in average corn prices, said Richard Volpe, a USDA food markets research economist.
The USDA said Wednesday it now expects farmers to get 146 bushels per acre this year, rather than the 166 bushels per acre it predicted at the beginning of the year.
But even with that loss, farmers may still do better than they would have 10 years ago because plant breeders have developed corn varieties better able to withstand drought. The average yield in 2002 was about 129 bushels per acre.
Even farmers who lose much or all of their corn this year are unlikely to go under. Most take out crop insurance to cover weather-related losses.
Tom Green, a meteorologist with National Weather Service out of Pittsburgh, said while the local area is only about 3.5 inches below average in precipitation over the past six months, much drier weather has hit the region over the past month or two. He said the month of June was the ninth driest June for on record for the Ohio Valley - and he indicated their records go all the way back to 1871.
Rusty Jebbia, director of Public Works for the city of Wheeling, said crews have been doing their best to keep the grassy areas near Wheeling's Heritage Port watered frequently because so many events are held there throughout the summer months.
"People are always at the waterfront area - so we are trying to keep it alive since it is a focal point of the downtown area," he said.