SOUTHEAST Dry spell raises fears of drought

So far, the dry weather hasn't caused water shortages or led to restrictions.
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -- Nobody has to tell landscaper Eric Pope that the last few months have been some of the driest on record in many parts of the South. All he has to do is look around at all the patchy, dusty yards.
"If this is any indication of what it's going to be like," he said, "it's going to be a rough year."
Though it's too soon to predict a return to the searing drought that gripped the region two years ago, water officials say the dry patch during some of the normally wettest months of the year doesn't bode well for crops or the threat of wildfires.
Many cities in the Southeast experienced record and near-record dry conditions -- less than 20 percent of the normal rainfall in many parts -- from October through March. The federal Drought Monitor map placed much of the Southeast, including most of Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, in the "abnormally dry" category, the first of the five drought alert levels.
Cities affected
Atlanta; Montgomery, Ala.; New Orleans; Charleston, S.C.; Tallahassee, Fla.; Columbus, Ga.; Athens; and Savannah all reported one of the driest months of March on record.
Mobile, Ala., had its driest March in 163 years, with rainfall totaling 0.42 of an inch -- 6 percent of the normal amount for the month. In northeast Florida, Apalachicola posted its driest March ever, with 0.06 of an inch -- about 1 percent of normal.
"These are really pretty startling numbers," said Victor Murphy with the National Weather Service's Southeastern Regional Headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.
So far, the dryness has not threatened water supplies or led to water restrictions. And national forestry officials say the early wildfire season has been active, but not unusually so with about 107 large fires in 13 Southern states from Texas to Virginia. Florida has seen several large wildfires early in the season, including some that forced people out of their homes.
Farmers in the heart of the dryness -- Georgia and South Carolina -- say the lack of rainfall has actually helped make the early peach crop sweeter by not diluting the sugars in the fruit.
But if April's rainfall is also low, there will be a major concern going into the peak of the growing season because soils dry out starting in May, said Georgia state climatologist David Stooksbury.
"If the next six months are anything like the last six months, yes, we're going to be in major problems throughout the region. But that's a big 'if,"' Stooksbury said. "We still have April."

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