Drought in Iowa called 'super slow-motion disaster'

Full impact may not be felt for several years, panelists tell legislative committee

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The current drought gripping Iowa is “a super slow-motion disaster” that may take several years before the negative effects on farmers, ag-related businesses, small towns, consumers and others are fully understood and tabulated if dry conditions persist, an Iowa State University extension expert told a legislative panel Thursday.

Cathann Kress, ISU vice president for extension and outreach, said she expects to have some preliminary financial assessments s0on of the drought’s impact on Iowa, but she noted that the state will need between 16 and 18 inches of rain through next April to replenish subsoil moistures that were hard hit by hot and dry conditions during the 2012 growing season. Normally, Iowa receives about 12 inches of moisture between October and April, and weather models expect below normal amounts over the next six months.

“This drought is really a deep drought,” Kress told members of the Legislature’s Fiscal Committee, noting with irony that it was raining outside at the same time she was making her presentation. Three similar deep droughts occurred over the past century, and recovery each time took three years to achieve, she said.

“You can’t accurately predict what the full impact of a drought will be while you’re in the midst of it,” Kress said. The initial good news, she said, has been that this year’s drought did not sap yields as much as was expected.

“When it becomes of concern is when you have to take not only a one-year hit, but it turns into a two-year hit or a three-year hit, then it starts to really strain the abilities of even the most resilient farmers to be able to respond to that,” she said. “As they hit that, then it begins to also hit the other sectors.”

The ISU extension official said a prolonged drought could have a delayed economic impact because it will take awhile for incomes to decrease and a “cascading” effect and accompanying stress moves from farmers to related industries, to small-town retailers, to consumers, and to tourism and recreational sectors. Homeowners also will be affected by cracking foundations, parched lawns, and dying trees. Also the environment will be affected by wind erosion of soil, while low-flowing streams will experience increased pollutant concentrations which could cause health-related problems.

Lawmakers expressed concern that the farm sector has been a bright spot in an Iowa economy that is shaking off the effects of a national recession and that the potential financial impacts may not be known until 2014 or beyond depending on the moisture levels and temperatures that occur in the coming months.

Economists caution against attempting to project economic impacts while a drought is in progress, Kress said, noting that it’s only possible to infer the kinds of economic damages to expect but not the magnitude of those losses. Agricultural losses can be assessed and reported, but losses suffered by non-agricultural sectors – like public water supplies, tourism, recreation or homeowners – cannot, she added.

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