Drought conditions spread throughout Georgia, bringing hot temperatures, wilting plants

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Credit: Marisa Mecke

Credit: Marisa Mecke

It's no surprise that it gets hot, very hot, in Georgia during the summer. But the typical humid heat of the region is hiding a growing drought along the state’s coast and reaching into the Piedmont.

The U.S. Drought Monitor recently designated multiple southeastern Georgia counties in “severe droughts,” which manifests in stressed crops, low hay yields, delayed planting, hard soil and dustier conditions than usual. In this stage of drought, the monitor states that small streams start to dry up, rivers are lower and tree mortality begins.

Up in the Piedmont, "abnormally dry" conditions have grown this month.

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Credit: Marisa Mecke

Credit: Marisa Mecke

Aimee Conner works at one of the greenest places in Savannah: a plant nursery. At Savannah Secret Gardens' retail location, she said the business is making some adjustments to stave off browning and keep the greenery lush.

"This is the hottest week we've had yet," Conner said on Friday. She has moved some plants out of their normal direct sunlight, and the business is running its watering system twice daily and hand watering the smaller containers which dry out more quickly.

Others are reconsidering what plants to grow. At the University of Georgia's State Botanical Gardens in Athens, horticulturalist Brian Santos said the garden is watering well, adapting its planting schedule and opting for more native plants prepared for hot Georgia summers.

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Credit: Photo courtesy of University of Georgia State Botanical Garden

Credit: Photo courtesy of University of Georgia State Botanical Garden

"We try to focus on putting a little more natives that are a little tougher during these periods when it's dry," Santos said. "We're not planning anything that's going to have what we call 'wet feet,' use tons of water, so we can also be good stewards of the environment."

'It's more of a flash drought'

Tim Davis, the agriculture and natural resources agent for the University of Georgia Extension Office in Chatham County, said that since Chatham is more urban than many of its neighbors, the drought is showing itself mostly in crisp lawns and wilting gardens.

“It’s more of a flash drought,” Davis said, which precipitate quickly between hot weather and a lack of rain. However fast a flash drought comes, though, Davis said there's no predicting how quickly it will end, and in the meantime the lack of rain will keep temperatures hot throughout the state.

Part of what is keeping the region dry is a seasonal weather pattern, La Niña, which pushes the jet stream farther north, causing warmer and drier winters in the Southeast. Every few years when La Niña passes through, the southern coast of Georgia is more likely to get the weaker, drier portion of cold fronts, which aren’t able to generate a lot of showers or thunderstorms.

Davis said that while La Niña brings dryness to the region, it paradoxically also contributes to more intense hurricane seasons, and a tropical storm or hurricane would provide much-needed rain to alleviate the drought.

What can homeowners do to save lawns and plants?

In the meantime, Davis said he has some advice for homeowners concerned about lawns or landscape plants.

"People who have sprinklers to irrigate do it incorrectly," Davis said, watering their lawns too frequently and for too short a time. Instead, he recommends 2 inches of water per week, which can be divided among separate watering, until the rain comes.

Neil Dixon, a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s regional station in Charleston, said that coastal Georgia counties have accrued a solid deficit of rain.

By mid-May, Savannah usually would have received about 14 inches of rain during an average year. This year, Dixon said the weather station at the Savannah Airport has indicated the city received only 7.36 inches of rain.

Effingham County is facing an even worse drought. While Chatham County has received about half its average rainfall, Effingham County has only had 4.92 inches of rain this year.

“This is the third driest late winter, into spring that Effingham County has experienced in 128 years of keeping record,” Dixon said.

So far, the drought's spread hasn’t stopped. While the severe drought only encompassed Chatham and Effingham counties on May 10, the Drought Monitor released an update on May 19, which included all or parts of Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Long, Bulloch, Evans and Glynn counties under the severe drought category.

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Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

“Instead of (rain) events where we get a half-inch to 1-and-a-half inches of rainfall, we’re getting these events that are just producing a quarter of an inch of rain,” Dixon said. “And even those are more spaced out, instead of every three to four days they are about one a week.”

What the region really needs, Dixon said, is a good long soak: a two- or three-day storm with consistent rains, day and night, that lets the ground absorb the water. And it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: Once the moisture gets down into the ground, it helps contribute to future showers and thunderstorms because the area is more humid, which serves as fuel for future rains.

To view weekly updates from the U.S. Drought monitor, visit droughtmonitor.unl.edu.

Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist with the Georgia GO Team. You can reach her at mmecke@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Drought conditions spread throughout Georgia, bringing hot temperatures, wilting plants