Several counties now under "severe drought" status

Without much rain the past two months and with unseasonably warm temperatures setting records daily, Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday declared a state of emergency for all 55 West Virginia counties.

Boiling under a third consecutive day of record temperatures without any measurable precipitation, southern West Virginia is now experiencing severe drought conditions. Moderate drought conditions persist across much of the rest of the state.

On July 27, 0.16 of an inch of rain was recorded in Beckley. Since then, a mere .17 of an inch of rain has fallen. Only one-tenth of an inch of rain fell in all of September. The monthly average is 3.01 inches.

And not only has rain been scarce, record high temperatures are now being set – daily.

On each of the first three days of October, record highs were set in Beckley – 91 on Tuesday, 89 on Wednesday and then back up to 91 on Thursday. The average temperature for a normal October is 63.3 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

September was warm, too. The monthly average is 72.9 degrees, but this year the average daytime high was 83.8 – which was warmer than the July average of 83.5 this year.

Statewide over the past 90 days, West Virginia has received 2 to 5 inches less rainfall than normal, with some pockets of 5- to 7-inch rainfall deficits across the southern half of the state.

As a result, numerous rivers, lakes, and streams have extremely low water levels — lowering harvest amounts, limiting water supplies for livestock and increasing the risk of forest fires, among other potential dangers.

The governor’s state of emergency follows a proclamation issued by Justice on Sept. 20, which bans all outdoor burning throughout the state with limited exceptions. The burning ban is still in effect.

Drought conditions in all 55 counties are expected to escalate despite a forecast of showers during the day Sunday.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), 18.7 percent of West Virginia is now considered under D2 (severe drought) status, including areas of Raleigh, Fayette, Nicholas, Summers, Greenbrier and Monroe counties.

According to the state's Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt, these areas may experience potential crop loss, as well as water shortages.

“The WVDA (West Virginia Department of Agriculture) is concerned for the well-being of West Virginia livestock, as well as potential crop loss. We are working with our partners to assimilate potential resources for farmers,” Leonhardt said. "We encourage those affected to check with your local FSA office for resources."

WVDA, WVU Extension Service, USDA-FSA, the West Virginia Conservation Agency and the West Virginia Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security are currently working together to assimilate resources for those affected.

"Farmers should report drought conditions or any livestock deaths to their local Farm Service Agency Office," a release from Leonhardt's office stated. "FSA also maintains a list of hay for those in need or looking to secure hay for winter feeding."

According to National Weather Service (NWS) hydro-meteorologists, it will take around 2 to 3 inches of rain to get southern West Virginia out of its drought. 

Hydro-meteorologist John Sikora with the NWS-Charleston said the increase on the drought monitor will put added stress on vegetation, animal wildlife and water wells throughout the area.

Although September through October is typically West Virginia’s driest time of year, Sikora said, the magnitude of this year’s lack of rain is an event that happens on a 10- to 12-year cycle. According to his research, a dry spell such as this took place in 1988, another in 1999, one more in 2009, and now 2019.

As part of the state of emergency, the governor has directed state officials to:

* Implement the West Virginia Emergency Operations Plan as it relates to drought emergency response.

* Place the state Emergency Operations Center in a stand-by status, unless activation is deemed necessary and appropriate.

* Restrict the use of water for the purpose of dust control at construction and industrial sites, except as required under terms of permits issued for the same.

* Monitor existing water sources for the presence of contaminants, including harmful algae blooms, which tend to propagate more readily in warmer and shallower waters.

Gov. Justice has also issued voluntary guidelines for the residents of West Virginia to:

* Cease non-agricultural irrigation in the state, including those for strictly recreational purposes.

* Limit washing or cleaning vehicles and/or structures where not otherwise required by law.

* Limit use of public drinking water systems to minimal standards for good personal hygiene, food preparation, laundry, livestock, and pets, and other reasonable purposes.

* Cease the filling of private swimming pools.

The state of emergency will remain in effect until rescinded.

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