STATES:

Wis. governor tours drought-savaged state

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker heads on a drought tour today as his state continues to grapple with fish kills, dying crops and water emergencies amid raging heat.

On Wednesday, the Republican governor declared a state of emergency in all of Wisconsin's 72 counties because of abnormally dry conditions. Currently, 18.7 percent of the state is experiencing "severe" drought, particularly in its southern half near Milwaukee, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources released a detailed list of drought impacts, ranging from blue-green algae outbreaks to the concentration of waterfowl in areas known to have outbreaks of botulism.

"The increase in wildfires due to the combined lack of rain and high temperatures is adding to the risk of major economic losses, especially in agriculture," Walker said. "This is a time of crisis for many people, and we will utilize whatever resources are necessary to help."

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 55 percent of the country is in moderate to extreme drought, the largest percentage since 1956. Wisconsin is not the worst-hit state in the country in terms of the range of its severe drought, but it is a case study of the same conditions hitting states from California to Connecticut.

Take farming. Yesterday, Rick Roden, a 28-year-old dairy farmer from West Bend, Wis., said a sequence of above 90-degree-Fahrenheit days in July, combined with little moisture in soil, could slash his profits by 30 to 40 percent. Roden manages 400 dairy cows and 2,000 acres of soybean, corn and alfalfa plots at Rob-n-Cin Farms.

He said the drought is by far "the worst I've ever seen" and is prompting him to try and cool down cows in barns with fans and misting equipment.

From cheese to soybeans, worrisome trade-offs

The cows produce less milk once the temperature rises above 75 degrees because of high stress, he said. He has not yet lost any animals but said he worries that could happen if the drought worsens. Milk production is down about 15 to 20 percent since the beginning of the summer drought, he said.

"It is nerve racking," Roden said.

The drought also has hit crops hard across the state, making less corn, hay and other feedstock available for dairy farmers. As a result, Roden said, he may have to forgo a major source of income -- plotting his soybean and corn crops this fall for sale -- to instead use the land simply for growing feed to keep his cows alive.

Many farmers in Wisconsin -- the nation's largest cheese producer -- say they are having to adjust their planning practices and shift to different crops to cover losses. In Roden's case, he may be relying more this year on winter wheat, which was less affected by drought because of its different planting schedule.

The wheat actually benefited from a milder winter, which overlapped with some of the plant's growing season, he said.

He said many of his neighbors are increasingly seeing farmers try to sell their alfalfa and corn crops to dairy farmers directly, rather than sending them to market, because hot temperatures have made the crops less resilient. "They don't last as long," Roden said.

The state is doing what it can by issuing a state of emergency, Roden said. In his case, insurance will be the only source of financial help, he said.

Emergency work piles up

Nationwide, the price of corn has risen about 50 percent in the past four weeks. It is not clear yet how the drought will affect milk and cheese prices. Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Casey Langan said that the impact on food prices currently gripping the Midwest would not be seen in grocery aisles until next year.

Meanwhile, state agencies are working overtime in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said officials have been responding to 10 to 15 fires daily, including one this week that closed down a westbound lane of Interstate 90/94. Emergency burning restrictions, such as limits on outdoor burning at campgrounds, are in place in 19 counties in the state.

The state also is authorizing emergency permits to pump water for crop irrigation from lakes and rivers. Steve Ales, a section chief in the Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, said the drought has not dried up municipal wells, but private ones.

"We've got a lot of houses in the country," he said.

To meet the demand for new pumping, the state has had to put some applications on the back burner, to prioritize requests for new, "high capacity" walls requested by farmers with dying crops and livestock, Ales said.

The state also is notifying dam operators of their responsibility to maintain flow levels to ensure there is an ample supply to dilute wastewater from treatment plants.

Many of the state's lakes, rivers and streams are running lower than normal. The flows in the Milwaukee River near Cedarburg, for example, are 40 percent below normal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The state Department of Natural Resources said that "navigation is difficult" in some stretches of the Rock and Wisconsin rivers.

'Unprecedented' fish kills

As is the case in other parts of the country, the higher-than-average waterway temperatures and low flows are creating a double threat for fish.

Steve Hewett, a fisheries expert in the Department of Natural Resources, said there have been 37 reported fish kills due to both low waterway flows and high water temperatures in June and July. One-third of those reports are coldwater-dependent northern pike that do not have a migration path.

One of the main issues appearing since the drought started has been low levels of oxygen in waterways. Those low levels can occur "overnight" in drought conditions like this, he said.

The state has started to deny requests for use of herbicides to kill weeds in water, he said. The maintenance of existing weeds should help, he said, because "dying weeds use more oxygen."

The lack of herbicides could have a downside, though. More weeds in waterways make it more difficult for swimmers and boaters to navigate through channels, he said. The drought also is diverting state staff from other needs, he said.

There could be more fish kills out there, but state biologists also have to investigate every application for new water wells to ensure additional pumping will not harm fish.

That, in turn, delays the amount of time to investigate things like kills, Hewett said. State employees also are having to take more calls on algae growth along the Lake Michigan coast partially fueled by warmer weather.

"We've had kills before, but never with this kind of frequency," he said. "This is unprecedented."

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