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Friday, August 1, 2014

No drought of other problems from heat

By Beccy Tanner and Anne Calovich
The Wichita Eagle

In the second summer of a severe drought everything — from plant and animal life to our buildings and roads — is in need of water.

Crops are burning in the fields and farmers are finding cattle running out of food and water. We’ve seen deep cracks in the soil, in building foundations and roads.

Trees and lawns are scorched. Water in lakes and ponds is evaporating.

In large and small ways, the drought is putting a strain on how we live.

“It will rain again,” said Bob Neier, Sedgwick County horticulture extension agent. “It may not be in my lifetime, but it will rain again.”

Water your landscaping

Trees are in worse shape this summer than last year because of the cumulative harm that has been building, said Tim McDonnell, community forester with the Kansas Forest Service.

“The stress they went through last year has reduced their immunity to fend off” the ravages of this summer, he said. While trees last year had moisture going into the dry, hot summer, that moisture was never recovered going into this summer.

“Things are really starting to dive,” he said. "You can see it. Things are crashing out in the woods. Things are crashing in landscapes."

If a tree is losing leaves, water it immediately, McDonnell said. If you wonder whether a tree is dead, snap the branches and see whether there’s any green left inside. If not, it’s too late to water.

One good way to water is to place a hose on a trickle at the base of the tree, moving it occasionally to water slowly and deeply under the tree’s canopy, said Kay Drennen, environmental specialist for the city of Wichita. Or place a soaker hose in the outline of the canopy.

If a tree is not watered, there are bad guys out to get it.

"Our best pesticide, our best fungicide, is water," McDonnell said, because unless a tree is kept healthy it will be open to pests and diseases that will finish it off.

Your lawn may go dormant, but it still needs some water to stay alive. In the extreme heat, water fescue half an inch a week all at once, Sedgwick County extension agent Rebecca McMahon said. In a more normal summer, that would be half an inch every two weeks.

For a warm-season lawn of Bermuda, zoysia or buffalo, water an inch or so a week to keep it semi-green, or water half an inch every couple of weeks to keep it alive without injury. Especially in sandy soils, even some warm-season grass can die in this kind of summer, McMahon said.

The soil and plants lose about a third of an inch of water every day, Drennen said. If you water after about 10 a.m., “You’re going to be losing a lot to the atmosphere.”

If you have an automatic watering system, she recommends running it between 1 and 6 a.m. For those who water with a hose, 6 to 9:30 a.m. is the best time. She suggests putting a battery-operated timer on your spigot if you can’t get up that early. Watering in the evening can foster disease.

Sprinkler systems should be tested once a month in the daylight to check for misaligned or broken heads or water blocked by shrubs.

Water for wildlife

Even before food, birds and critters need water now, Bob Gress of the Great Plains Nature Center said. Fill a birdbath and change the water often during the day.

A lot of people are reporting that birds are disappearing, Gress said, and it’s eerily quiet outside in the afternoon.

"I don’t think they’re disappearing and dying,” he said. “I think they’re changing patterns, and that’s why you don’t see them in the middle of the day. Even birds retreat into the shade," and change their eating times to early and late in the day.

The same goes for mammals, such as squirrels.

"Everything slows down,” Gress said. “They lay low."

Aquatic life is taking a hit, too, as waterways dry up, Gress said. Turtles can move to muddy areas, but fish die. On the other hand, they provide a food source for kingfishers, egrets, possums, raccoons and skunks – any scavenger that’s willing to eat a dead fish.

"This time of year, for people who want to attract wildlife, there’s nothing better than water,” he said.

And don’t forget to water the foundations of your buildings, said Neier, the extension agent. Subsoil can shift and dry, causing foundations to crack.

Wet down soils around the house daily, especially if your house is located in the central part of town or east Wichita, where there is more clay in the soil.

The public landscape

Each week, the city of Wichita waters 8,000 trees that are 1 to 5 years old, said the city’s arborist, Gary Farris. Many more young trees than that have been planted in city rights of way by contractors, and it is the responsibility of the contractors to water those, Farris said.

As for the older trees, they have to fend for themselves, he said.

"We’re just trying to keep the young trees as healthy as possible,” he said. “They’re still stressing out because of the air temperature. There’s no real way to water the mature trees.

"There’s not a tree in Wichita that’s not stressed out, whether it’s in an irrigated yard or a city right of way."

More trees are dying on city property than there would be if we were getting rain, Farris said. The city is removing them when there are signs that they’ve become a danger.

Road problems

Even roads are susceptible to drought.

Concrete blowups, where the heat causes the road to expand and pushes the concrete up, have been occurring throughout the state, said Steve Swartz, public information officer for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

“Our roads are built with heat expansion in mind,” Swartz said. “All our concrete roads have joints to allow for expansion but you can’t be 100 percent certain of preventing blowups.”

The majority of concrete roads in Kansas are in the eastern part of the state, along I-70, and in and around the major cities.

Asphalt roads are taking a hard hit this year, particularly in southwest Kansas, Swartz said. To help prevent major bumps in the road, KDOT crews are taking large saws across the roads and cutting slots four to six inches wide to create gaps and then filling them over.

“It helps reduce some of the stress on the road,” Swartz said.

In order to prevent grass fires, crews in southwest Kansas have been ordered to not pull their trucks off the side of the road, Swartz said, but go to road intersections if they need to stop or turn around. Crews are also mowing rights of way to create larger fire breaks.

Norm Bowers, local road engineer for the Kansas Association of Counties, said the drought also is causing headaches for townships and counties all across the state trying to maintain dirt roads.

“The roads without shoulders dry out and the soil shrinks,” Bowers said. “The immediate thing is you start getting washboards, and the public starts calling wanting us to do something.”

And, in counties with sand on the roads, it just causes the sand to get deeper.

“It is almost like you are wasting your time,” Bowers said.

Be cautious

The Sedgwick County Fire Department on Tuesday issued a news release reminding residents about the dangers of underground gas supply lines. As the subsoil dries, it can cause underground gas and water lines to shift and break. A water line burst at Mount Vernon and Topeka on Tuesday afternoon, causing the street to buckle.

All in all, most people agree our lives could be helped right now by a good soaking rain.

“It sure has taken a toll on things out here in the west,” said Mark Smith, 59, owner of the Pleasant Valley Ranch near Sharon Springs, along the border of Kansas and Colorado.

“All we have to do is get some rain. My grandfather used to say it would always rain – he just didn’t know when.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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