Drought brings Nelson, Johanns to SNR for briefings

Worsening drought conditions drew both of Nebraska’s United States senators to visit the National Drought Mitigation Center in UNL’s School of Natural Resources last week.

Sen. Ben Nelson visited on Aug. 1, and Sen. Mike Johanns attended an hour-long briefing Aug. 2. Both met with university officials and experts to discuss the full scope of drought impacts on Nebraska.

Johanns said he went for a drive through Nebraska recently. At the time, soybean fields “didn’t look too bad,” and he hoped they might still recover, if only it would finally rain. But after the Aug. 2 briefing, Johanns said he is running low on optimism. This summer’s record-breaking temperatures, “coupled with dry conditions just crippled everything,” he said.

University officials and experts outlined the deep impacts of the drought, both short-term and possible long-term effects. They covered a broad range including livestock, crops, water wells and even impacts on insect populations.

“I really applaud your efforts at outreach,” Johanns said. “Probably the best drought expertise in the country is in this room, if not the world.”

For the immediate future, it appears no amount of rain will do much to help corn fields, and there may only be a small window for soy bean crops to recover, said Bob Klein, an agronomy professor and western Nebraska crops specialist at the UNL Extension.

But Drought Center director Mike Hayes illustrated that long-term national heat and rain forecasts predict no relief in sight. Hayes expects weather conditions will just be more of the same over the next few weeks, possibly even months.

Bob Wright, an entomologist at UNL Extension, said the current crops are suffering a “double-whammy” because as they thirst for moisture, certain insects thrive in dry conditions adding stress to the plants. He said he hasn’t seen such an infestation of plant-eating spider mites since 1988; and rootworms are limiting plants’ ability to absorb what little moisture there is.

Current dry conditions create several problems, including dusty conditions that can be harmful to livestock, particularly young calves. And what few trees and forested areas that exist in the state are tinder boxes waiting for a spark, according to Don Westover with the Nebraska Forest Service.

There have been 22 fires in the state so far, “and we’re going to have more, I’m afraid,” he said.

Even as current crops shrivel in the fields, there may be a more lasting impact. Dying trees across the state aren’t just hurting homeowners’ landscaping efforts, but also threaten rows of trees that help prevent erosion.

Sarah Browning, a horticulturist with UNL Extension, said she expects most Scotch pine trees will die in the state and there’s little that can be done about it.

“We’re in a mode of damage management and repair,” she said.

Another potential long-term problem is associated with the high amount of nitrates found in water-starved crops, particularly those used to feed livestock. High amounts of nitrates are poisonous to livestock, which could create even more problems during winter months.

Like Johanns, Nelson was discouraged by the news.

“If anything it was disheartening,” Nelson said after the meeting. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Nelson said he would return to the Senate to urge Congress to pass the 2012 Farm Bill, which has stalled in the House of Representatives.

“It’s time to get something done,” he said.

— Charlie Litton, Natural Resources