News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 5, 2012

MARK BENNETT: High & Dry: A skyview of the drought

Effects on river, fields striking from the air

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Dust dominates the landscape now.

And that’s just what you feel like — a speck of dust — when viewing the drought-stricken Wabash Valley from 2,000 feet in the air.

Humility-challenged folks should take that ride. It worked for me.

We humans give ourselves too much credit. When something as vast and complex as the economy of a nation of 300,000,000 people sputters, we expect one man in a big Washington office (or another guy itching to replace him) to fix it. If an ice storm grounds our flight the day before Thanksgiving, “they” (the airport, airline, pilots, ground crew, controllers) are expected to quickly figure out a way to get us where we want to go. And safely.

This is 2012, after all.

The extent of man’s power came into focus through the windows of a Cessna 172 airplane Wednesday afternoon. Local pilot Kevin Jeffries of Sky King Airport steered Trib-Star photographer Joe Garza and me through a one-hour flyover of the Terre Haute area. Several times, we pointed to eye-catching examples of this rainless summer.

Two elements in the scenery draw immediate attention — the Wabash River and the farm fields.

The river still flows, but has grown so narrow and shallow in spots that it seems more fitting to call it Wabash Creek. At its bends just south of I-70, the waterway has thinned to just a few feet wide.

Its banks have grown into beaches. The river stage measured a scant 0.11 feet that day. In places, that number appeared generous.

Trees and foliage near the river seemed healthier than those elsewhere.

Crop lands reflected the dry, hot weather. The farmers’ care was still apparent, with corn and soybeans aligned in neat rows. And, the symmetry of each plot — laid out in squares and rectangles — remains a thing of beauty from a bird’s-eye view. As Jeffries turned the plane and descended a bit for a closer look, those patches revealed the situation. Instead of loaded tassels, atop thousands of lush cornstalks, swaying in warm breeze on the first day of August, most of the plants stood stiff, brittle and wrinkled. They were so skeletal, the dirt below was easily visible. A couple of cornfields contained bare spots, where wind had blown down the stalks.

A few stands of corn neared the normal range, likely from access to irrigation. Even with that, the battle is uphill. July produced just less than a half-inch of rain — and 29 days of 90-plus temperatures.

The Drought Monitor, a service maintained by the USDA and NOAA, ranks the drought here as “exceptional” — its most dire level. Dictionaries give that word two definitions. The first meaning, appropriate for the drought, involves a “rare instance, unusual, extraordinary.” The second connotes unusual excellence. Not many lawns or pastures, clear to the eye from a small plane, could be described as excellent. At best, the athletic fields at the high schools and colleges looked ready for the upcoming seasons.

Indeed, in some ways, Hoosiers’ resilience showed during Wednesday’s aerial tour. The interstate, highways and streets bustled with cars, trucks, semis, motorcycles and mo-peds. A few hardy pedestrians braved the 98-degree heat. Golfers walked or carted to find their shots at the city’s golf courses. On the south side, grass on the greens and fairways of Rea Park looked distinctly alive, compared to the surrounding grounds. Across town, on the east side, Hulman Links strikingly bore a thirstier, more brown appearance. Later, Dave Kennedy, the city of Terre Haute golf operations manager, explained to Tribune-Star reporter Brian Boyce that Rea Park, unlike Hulman Links, is blessed with its own wells, and has used 14 million gallons of water this season. The contrast was stark.

Not far from Hulman Links, the lake alongside the National Road Heritage Trail was shallow enough in places to see its bottom.

People have found ways to create their own oases, though. From neighborhood to subdivisions, pools stood waiting, brimming with water. The circular, above-ground pools added a different geometric shape to the four-sided yards, whose lawns mostly resembled the texture of shredded wheat.

With the drought-related heartache, high prices and lost resources, a chance to swim offers a little relief.

Looking down on it all Wednesday, you had to wonder the same thing as people chronicled in the biblical book of Jeremiah, which contains the passage, “How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field withered?” In other words, when will this drought end?

The Drought Monitor predicts the lack of precipitation to continue into October. Man can’t do anything to disprove that. We can’t make it rain.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or