ATLANTA — There are some light sides to it. "Conserve Water--Drink Beer," says a sign outside a suburban Atlanta bar.
But a drought that has spread over the Southeast in the past month and that shows few signs of relenting soon is raising concerns among farmers, industries and communities suffering for the second year in a row from a prolonged period with little rain.
Although it has spawned a series of forest fires, this year's dry spell has not been so severe as last year's devastating drought, which hit in early summer, lingered for months and was aggravated by a heat wave that sent temperatures past the 100-degree mark for days on end.
In most of the region, the latest drought arrived in October, after the peak of the growing season and after the period of highest water use for cities and towns.
But that has not stopped speculation as to whether the Southeastern "Sun Belt," which has long prided itself on its blissful climate, is turning into a "Drought Belt."
Back to Back Droughts
"You kind of expect a drought every now and then, but we've had droughts in '77, '80, '83 and now, back to back, in '86 and '87," said John Icherd, an agricultural economist with the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.
Weather specialists attribute the latest drought, which extends in an arc from Mississippi to Virginia, to invasions of dry continental air that have brought cooler than normal days but have kept out precipitation.
"October is normally a dry month anyway, but a lot of places barely got anything to mention," said Roger Getz, a meteorologist with the Southeast Agricultural Weather Service in Auburn, Ala.
Tennessee, for example, had slightly more than a quarter-inch of rain last month, making it the third driest October on record there. In North Georgia, cities such as Athens, Blairsville and Clayton are registering rainfall deficiencies of from 10 to 21 inches.
Forecasters predicted dry, windy weather through the weekend for most of the region. Long-range outlooks call for no strong changes above or below normal precipitation levels.
Although forest fires have caused the most spectacular damage--tens of thousands of acres were burning Friday--farmers have recorded the most serious losses.
In Virginia, Gov. Gerald L. Baliles has asked the federal government to designate 30 counties as natural disaster areas because of the drought. Total crop losses from pasture, corn and other farm crops in those localities has been estimated at more than $84.5 million. Those same counties lost more than $117 million in last year's drought.
Frequent Crop Losses
Officials say this year's drought marks the fifth time in the last seven years that Virginia farmers have experienced crop losses due to dry weather.
In Georgia, peanut farmers are facing losses conservatively estimated at $43 million as the drought has reduced yields from the state's No. 1 cash crop.
"In a normal year, our yields are anywhere from 3,200 to 3,400 pounds per acre," said Donald Koehler, president of the Georgia Peanut Commission in Tifton. "This year, we're down to an average of 2,500 pounds per acre--a drop of from 700 to 900 pounds per acre."
"It has to be disheartening," he added. "We had a disaster year in 1980, came back in '84 and '85, but then had problems in '86 and now this year. Peanut farmers aren't making a real fancy living right now."
Farmers in several parts of the Southeast also are being kept from planting winter crops and forage. "Some of our fields are dust bowls," said Wayne Houston, an agronomist with the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service.
The dry weather also is plaguing industries and provoking questions about the Southeast as a place to do business.
In Siler City, N.C., near Greensboro, for instance, Midstate Farms' poultry processing plant is under a city-imposed 20% reduction in water use and has cut back production to four days from five.
Hadley-Peoples Manufacturing Co., a textile yarn-maker in the same town, has drilled two private wells on its property and is planning to sink a third in efforts to overcome the mandatory rationing of city water.
"This is our second straight year of drought and the city fathers have not done enough planning ahead to have reservoirs increased enough to carry water from one year to the next," said Charles King, the company's vice president.
Elsewhere in the Southeast:
--Bans restricting outdoor watering during parts of the day have gone into effect in Atlanta and several neighboring communities. The restrictions are part of conservation measures called for by the state Environmental Protection Division in 80 water systems in Georgia.
--Water levels in some lakes and reservoirs have fallen to precipitous levels. Lake Sidney Lanier, which supplies most of Atlanta's water, is 5 feet below normal, while nearby Lake Allatoona is 7.5 feet below normal.
--Hydroelectric power production will be reduced 26% next week in the U.S. Corps of Engineers region encompassing Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina because of low water flows. The Corps also is closing the Apalachicola River to commercial and other traffic beginning Wednesday.
Climatologists say they are as baffled as anyone by the recent succession of droughts.
"One of the things we're trying to determine is whether this is a normal fluctuation or an abnormal one that might continue to persist," said Grant Goodge of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
"It's normal for climate to vary," he said. "But if what we're seeing is part of an extended pattern, then that will be of major concern to the region, particularly for farmers."