Dry spell impacts livestock farmers: Six wells have gone dry in Shenandoah County

At least six wells have gone dry in the Shenandoah County area, said Bobby Clark, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for agricultural and natural resources.

The area’s recent dry spell hurts homeowners, but is most crippling to livestock farmers, who depend on a constant supply of water for their herd.

“Many livestock farmers use wells to water their livestock, whether it be cattle, chickens, or what have you,” Clark said. “It is my understanding that some farmers have already had to sell livestock that they were not planning to sell because their well went dry.”

Without access to their primary water source, Clark said, farmers can often be forced to unexpectedly sell off their livestock, since hauling water can quickly become economically infeasible.

“If you’ve got a couple hundred heads of livestock, and they’re drinking 10 gallons a day, that’s 2,000 gallons a day,” Clark said. “Sometimes the volume they need is too large to practically haul on a routine basis.”

So far, Clark has seen that wells shallower than 150 feet are the ones running dry. He added that there could certainly be exceptions to this observation, but so far that has proven to be generally true.

The likely culprit is lackluster rainfall this winter. At this point in the season, the area has not seen a winter this dry since 1981, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Elliott.

(That conclusion is based on historical rainfall numbers in Woodstock between Dec. 1 and Jan. 23 over various years.)

“One of the biggest things that’s been going on — it’s really not just been dry lately … last winter was pretty dry, too,” Elliott said. “We’ve sort of gone through two winters in a row with below-normal precipitation. The groundwater never really recovered from last winter being relatively dry.”

At this point during last year’s winter, the weather service recorded 3.72 inches of rain in Woodstock. This year, it’s only up to 1.45.

All of this leads to a decrease in the area’s stored groundwater, adversely impacting the performance of wells. But Clark, though it may seem counter-intuitive, doesn’t anticipate that the low rain accumulation will significantly hurt crops yields. He said that crops can thrive on immediate rain rather than relying on stored groundwater.

“In the middle of the summer, we can get really good rain and make a good crop, and not a drop of that, sometimes, gets to groundwater, because the plants are using it as fast as it’s falling,” Clark said. “So rarely do we get good recharge of any amount in the summertime … Most of our recharge is from rain that occurs from about the first of October through April.”

The lackluster precipitation over the past two winters does not bode well for recharging the area’s groundwater.

In October 2017, the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors made a request to be declared an agricultural disaster area, freeing up government money to provide relief to farmers. Significant October rainfall delayed a decision on the request, and as of this week the U.S. Farm Service Agency has yet to make a decision.

The Virginia Cooperative e Extension recommended two Pennsylvania State University publications for managing low-flow wells and conserving household water. These can be viewed at bit.ly/2GafaNs and bit.ly/2BqJEaz, respectively.

Two recurring tips in the publications are to limit water consumption and to spread out peak usage. For instance, don’t wash your car at home, and split shower times by having half your family bathe in the morning and the other half at night.

These conservation strategies may prove crucial in the coming weeks, as Elliott said the National Weather Service does not predict any significant rainfall in the next seven to 14 days. Clark, however, keeps an optimistic forecast.

“I anticipate, eventually, it’s going to rain good and eventually our groundwater will recover. Just we don’t know when that will be,” he said. “It’ll eventually start raining good. We just gotta hang on until then.”