When Beth Hornsby peered into the freezer that holds her crops, she was looking at the impact of drought.
Last winter, she had thousands of ears of corn and about 400-500 quarts of peas spread among three freezers, where she puts the summer crops away in the freezers to sell during the winter.
Now she has 600–700 ears of corn and about 200 packs of peas in one freezer.
“It’s just one of those things where you just kind of have to write it off at a loss at some point. There’s no saving it,” Hornsby, owner of Hornsby Farms in Auburn, said.
The drought, which has affected Lee County and many other counties in the state, has also taken a swing at her and her husband’s farm, leaving them to figure out ways to make up for some of the crop loss.
Rainfall is 15 inches less than it should be for the farm, she said. Plasticulture, a type of drip irrigation, helps some of the crops during the dry spell, but row crops — such as corn, peas, watermelon and pumpkins — are taking the brunt of the blow.
The farm needs rain to soften the soil for planting and to produce fruit on the plants, two challenges the drought has brought.
“So that’s been our biggest issue, and a lot of farmers’ [issue] right now, especially if you’re doing row crops and you don’t have overhead irrigation or other irrigation methods in pace, you’re basically out,” Hornsby said.
The input cost to plant the crops without a sufficient yield can be detrimental to smaller farms like hers, she noted.
“The biggest hurdle for us has been to try to get at least a little bit off of those fields,” she said.
The natural spring under her property helps by sparing her the cost of a water bill, Hornsby said.
“Even now when we’re the driest that we’ve been in over a year, we’re not worried about running out of water,” she said. “We’re really fortunate.”
The Hornsbys are trying to work around the drought, she added, by focusing to crops that can survive with irrigation and creating smaller plots for row crops.
But a lack of rain isn’t the only concern farmers have. The dryness also brings with it a fear of field burning.
“If someone drives by their field and throws a cigarette butt out, it can catch your whole field on fire, it’s so dry. … That’s another risk farms have to think about and just pray that that doesn’t happen because that’s a huge one,” Hornsby said.
The governor issued a Drought Emergency Declaration, or “No Burn Order,” on Oct. 12, banning all outdoor burning in 46 counties, including Lee County, because of the dry conditions.
And in the last 30 days, over 1,000 wildfires in the state have burned more than 12,000 acres, according to the Alabama Forestry Commission.
Most of Lee County is under an extreme drought, according to the Oct. 25 U.S. Drought Monitor. Last year, the county wasn’t even in a drought, though a small portion of the county was “abnormally dry,” which is three levels less severe than extreme drought.
“October is typically the driest month for… central Alabama, and that includes Auburn,” said meteorologist Jim Westland.
The Auburn-Opelika area last received the sight of rain Oct. 16, which amounted to 0.4 inch of precipitation, Westland said. The area, before that, had last seen rain Sept. 16 with a minuscule 0.03 inch.
However, it takes time for a drought to develop, which means it also take time to alleviate one, he added.
“At least a month or two of normal to above-normal precipitation,” Westland said. That way the rain doesn’t just run off the land, but has time to soak into the soil.
The dry conditions have spurred a notice from the city as well.
The Auburn Water Work Board last week issued a Phase 1 Drought Watch after monitoring indicators such as drought conditions, water supply, lake levels and others.
The Phase 1 Drought Watch, issued as a precaution, urges voluntary restriction on water use.
“When we start to see our resources starting to be strained a little bit due to drought conditions, we will issue a stage 1 to just kind of remind costumers that we’re in drought conditions and that we need to pay attention to what we’re doing,” said Eric Carson, director of the city’s Water Resource Management.
The water demand in August and September this year, he said, was 20 percent above the average demand for those months.
The city is encouraging residents not to waste water — to make sure irrigation systems aren’t leaking or to even shut them off now that the growing season is over, Carson added.
Lake levels at the city’s primary water source, Lake Ogletree, are lowered artificially to allow construction for a new spillway at the lake.
“What we want to do is preserve our lake level where it’s at now and not let it get any lower, and we hope that these voluntary restrictions will help us do that so then when the construction’s over, we can just fill it up from where it’s out now, not from a deeper elevation,” Carson said.
Mainly because of the construction at the lake, the city has to rely more on purchasing more water from Opelika Utilities and pulling from a groundwater well in south Auburn.
But when that phase of the construction is over, which should be near the end of November, the city will fill the lake again.
November through January is a critical time period for rainfall, Carson added, because returning Lake Ogletree to its regular elevation relies on rain every year.
The regular elevation for the lake at this time of year is about 474–480 feet, and now the lake is just over 471 feet, which Carson said is the target elevation for the construction project.
In other instances where the lake levels have been similarly low, Carson said the lake have filled back up by the end of February or end of March.
“And we don’t see this year being any different, but with the weather patterns we’ve seen … we’ve gone almost two months without any rain,” he noted. “Until this past weekend, we hadn’t had any rain since August 24. Going back 40 years in our records, we had never seen an extended period of drought like that in that 40 years.”
The city will monthly monitor set elevation targets for the lake and based on the target elevations, the forecast, the demand and other variables, the city will decide weather to remain at a phase 1 or to move on to the next phase, which would implement mandatory restrictions.
“All that said, we have plenty of water to meet our normal average demands for our customers and any emergency-type situations,” Carson added. “We have an amply supply and we have redundant sources and we’re in good shape, but we still have to be smart about it.”
The city is encouraging residents to implement the following water-saving techniques:
- "Water at efficient times of the day to prevent evaporation due to heat and wind (after 8:00 PM and before 8:00 AM). Check your sprinkler timer and make adjustments as needed.
- Check sprinkler heads and adjust them as needed to keep water on your lawn, trees and shrubs and to keep water off of the street, driveway and sidewalk.
- Check your sprinkler system for leaks and make repairs in a timely manner to minimize water losses.
- Do not leave manual sprinklers or running hoses unattended. If watering manually, use a kitchen timer to remind you to turn off the water.
- Eliminate washing houses or paved surfaces unless for public health or safety reasons.
Customers are also reminded of the following steps to save water:
- Take shorter showers.
- Do not let the water run while brushing your teeth, washing your face or washing dishes by hand.
- Only run full loads of laundry or dishes."