The first half of 2019 saw remarkably wet conditions that put Kentucky on track to have a record year for rainfall. But now, the state is facing one of the worst droughts since records began in 1895.
All 120 counties in Kentucky have issued drought declarations as unprecedented hot and dry conditions pummel the state and much of the Southeast. Persistent drought conditions are already affecting this year’s farmers and cattle producers and could impact the state’s drinking water if they last much longer.
Last month will likely go down as the driest September on record with an average of 0.28 inches of rainfall across the state. At the same time, it’s likely to be among the hottest ever Septembers on record, State Climatologist Stuart Foster.
“In a very real sense what we are seeing now has never happened before in our recorded record,” Foster said. “Almost any way you look at it this is an unprecedented situation for us here in Kentucky.”
While every drought is unique, this year’s weather pattern is consistent with climate change models in national and regional climate assessments, Foster said. Climate scientists say the frequency of extreme weather including heavy downpours, droughts and heatwaves will become more common as average temperatures rise.
Across the Commonwealth, the drought is having cascading impacts. Low-flow conditions on the Ohio River are encouraging the growth of toxic blue-green algae. Meanwhile, the dry weather has sapped forests of their moisture, just as leaves begin to fall and fire season starts.
The state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet says if the drought gets much worse, it could start to affect local drinking water systems.
“If conditions persist some water utilities could have difficulty treating water and may begin issuing conservation advisories,” said spokesman John Mura.
The dry weather is helping farmers get into the fields to harvest their corn and soybeans, but the moisture content in those crops is down and that lowers prices, said Matt Dixon, University of Kentucky senior agricultural meteorologist.
And the dry weather isn’t just hurting prices for corn and soy crops, it’s also driving up transportation costs for farmers like Larry W. Butler, who grows grain and raises cattle in his farm on the Jefferson-Bullitt county line.
Butler’s grain floats down barges that are having trouble navigating rivers because of the low-flow conditions. As a result, the barges have to lighten their loads and charge more for transport, he said.
Cattle producers may have it even worse.
“There’s no grass for them to eat and what they’re eating there’s no protein in it or anything, it’s just dried up,” Butler said, “It’s just filler to them.”
So that has ranchers cutting into their winter hay supply, which is already about 50 percent less than normal because of the drought, Dixon said.
Butler and his neighbors are also hauling in fresh water every day to make sure their cattle stay clean, hydrated and free of parasites. He said this is the worst drought he’s ever seen, but then again, if farming were easy everyone would do it.
“To plant a seed is to believe,” he said. “And you just have to believe the next time it’s going to be a little better and doesn’t get any worse.”
This story has been updated.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the first half of 2018 was unusually wet. This is true, but the line should have referred to 2019.