As the Susquehanna River drops to levels not seen in decades, and with very little rain in the forecast, environmentalists and agricultural experts are worried about a potentially widespread negative impact on late season crop harvesting and a shortening of the touris-tattracting leaf-peeping season.
“We need rain ... bad,” said Terry Brady, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, on Thursday. “There’s no other way to put it.”
Penns Creek has been reduced in some spots to a dribble, Brady said. “It’s really bad. There have been some fishing restrictions as trout are searching for spots to get oxygen. And people like to hike and bike near the creek, so this has been affected as well.”
Anyone driving along the West Branch of the River can see how low it is, Brady continued. Without more rain, current river levels will get even lower. On Thursday, the Susquehanna at Danville measured 2.2 feet, 1.1 feet at Lewisburg, .9 feet at Milton, and 5.8 feet at Sunbury. Neither AccuWeather nor the National Weather Service had average yearly River depth figures available.
“But I can tell you, if the depths drop a few more tenths of an inch,” said meteorologist John Feerick, of AccuWeather, in State College, “depths will be in the bottom five measured of all time.”
The situation is even worse in the northern tier and New York, where rivers and streams feed into the Susquehanna, Feerick said. “Williamsport river level is at minus .1 foot. And as you go north, even into New England, the drought is so bad that people are under water restrictions.”
Valley counties have been under a drought watch, Feerick said, “and unfortunately, there is very little rain in sight. Scattered thundershowers and some rain on Sunday, maybe,” he said.
So far this month, .25 of an inch of rain has fallen on the Valley, 21 percent of the normal precipitation in September, about 2 inches. Last year 3.28 inches of rain was measured by this date in September.
The low rainfall could also affect leaf colors and fall foliage watching.
“Those trees that produce the lighter variety of leaves, yellow, are affect most by lack of rain,” he said, citing Poplar, Birch, Sugar Maple and Oak trees.
“If we don't get enough rain, the colors don’t last as long and we'll see a faster dropping of leaves,” Brady said.
The area’s agricultural business is always at the mercy of weather.
“Rainfall is certainly something we can't control,” said grain farmer Lewis Snyder, of Beaver Springs, sounding tired after a day in the field. “We’re harvesting early this year. From one year to the next we're never quite sure what to expect, although I do watch predictions online.”
John Esslinger, an educator with the Penn State Cooperative Extension said, “Thursday morning I went to a produce auction in Mifflinburg. The farmers who irrigate their crops said they had good years, excellent quality. The crops were bountiful. Farmers, though, have that extra time and expense when they need to irrigate.”
Overall, the hot and dry summer will have a negative impact on a good number of farms across the state, said Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill Thursday afternoon. “Those farms growing field crops such as corn, soybeans and alfalfa hay, could have lower than normal yields,” he said.
Right now, the crop most likely in jeopardy from continued hot and dry weather is soybeans, because a lack of rainfall could stop the beans from fully developing and lower overall yields.
Meanwhile, said O’Neill, “many farmers across Pennsylvania have already begun harvesting corn that has been stunted by a lack of rainfall this summer. Depending upon the location of the farm and the amount of rainfall it has received, the corn is being chopped for forage and used as animal feed.”
Despite an overall hot and dry growing season, which included drought watches and warnings in about three dozen counties across the state, O’Neill added, some farmers had timely rains and have fully developed earns of corn that have been or will be harvested for grain.
Meanwhile, the dry conditions can delay efforts by farmers to begin seeding wheat and alfalfa for 2017. Many farmers will also likely experience reduced yields for a third cutting of hay this year.
“Finally, O’Neill said, “even some orchards have reported that some of their apples are not as robust compared to past years as the high heat and dry conditions have resulted in smaller-sized apples.”