By Rick Callahan
Indianapolis — Indiana’s drought is intensifying after weeks of scant rainfall that have left cropland parched, raised the risk of wildfires and sent homeowners scrambling to water lawns fading from green to brown.
The federal government’s U.S. Drought Monitor map updated Thursday shows nearly 90 percent of Indiana is now abnormally dry. A moderate drought covers about 40 percent of the state, mainly northern Indiana and the state’s southwestern corner — a portion of which is experiencing a severe drought, the map indicates.
Associate state climatologist Ken Scheeringa said a weather system that pushed across Indiana on Monday delivered little or no rain to parched areas. The next good chance of rain is a week away and temperatures are forecast to rise into the lower 90s in the coming days, he said.
“We’ll be lucky to get rain in the next week. It’s very distant,” Scheeringa said Thursday.
A week ago, the area officially in drought stretched to the north of Kokomo. By Thursday, the drought area included all of Miami, Howard and Tipton counties.
Three northern Indiana counties — Marshall, Noble and Steuben — have imposed countywide burn bans due to the risk of wildfires, and others could soon follow.
Noble County’s fire departments have battled about a dozen fires in the past week in tinder-dry fields suffering from a 6-inch rainfall deficit, said Kendallville Fire Chief Mike Riehm.
“It’s just too parched right now. There’s a great danger of wind-whipped fires getting out of control and moving really fast,” he said.
Kokomo Fire Chief Pat O’Neill said Thursday there’s been no discussion of a local burning ban. By agreement, city fire officials and township fire officials have convened in the past to decide jointly on a burning ban.
The last burning ban was issued in the fall, O’Neill noted, when crops were drying in the fields. A ban would be less likely in the spring, when crops are still green, he added.
The lack of rain combined with sunny, warm conditions is forcing more moisture out of the ground each day, drying up fields and turning lawns brown not just in Indiana but surrounding states as well.
“There’s always this balancing act between how much rain comes into the soil and how much leaves through evaporation. And right now evaporation is winning,” Scheeringa said.
Indiana’s drought has hit the state’s far southwestern corner the hardest. An area covering all or parts of eight southwestern counties is in the midst of a severe drought, stung by a 10-inch rainfall deficit for the year.
Vanderburgh County farmer Chris Winiger said that from March through the end of May only about an inch of rain fell on his land.
Monday’s storm system brought his fields between two-tenths and a half-inch of rain, not enough to make much difference to his 800 acres of corn and 800 acres of soybeans, he said.
“It was just enough to give us hope for a while, but it wasn’t a drought reliever,” Winiger said. “We’re hurting for rain.”
He said if the drought persists for another two to four weeks he expects to face significant corn yield losses.
Purdue University agronomist Bob Nielsen said even if rain comes soon some of Indiana’s hard-hit corn and soybean fields will still face reduced yields.
But he said that overall most of Indiana’s top crops of corn and soybeans are faring relatively well, in part because the dry spring allowed farmers to finish planting weeks ahead of normal and crops are well established and deeply rooted.
“On a statewide basis it’s not yet a serious issue. If it were to start raining soon I really do think we could come out of it in amazingly good shape,” he said.
Nielsen said if the dry conditions persist for three weeks it would reduce corn yields because by then fields will be entering the critical tasseling and pollination period when ears of corn form.
Although the lingering drought is an economic concern for farmers, it’s also on the minds of Indiana homeowners worried about their manicured lawns, which are stressed and browning.
At White’s Ace Hardware on Indianapolis’ northeast side, assistant manager John Blackwell said sales of oscillating sprinklers and soaker hoses have risen significantly in the past month.
“We’re selling a ton of those,” he said. “All you have to do is go outside and drive the neighborhoods and 99.9 percent of the grass is brown.”
• Scott Smith, Kokomo Tribune staff writer, contributed to this story. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.