Skilling, Illinois farmers wary of growing drought problem in Chicago area

Chicago News

CHICAGO — It’s been more than 30 years since the Chicago area has seen this much heat without much rain at all.

As of Tuesday, the northern half of the area is in a severe drought. It means everything from farm crops to weekend trips to the lake could be affected, unless the area gets some rain and soon.

You could see the sweat rolling down people’s faces 33 years ago during the drought of 1988.

WGN Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling was working in the weather office that summer and remembers it well.

“If you had taken the agricultural losses across the country and factored them in on a national basis,” Skilling said. “That would have been, from an agricultural standpoint, that would have been the biggest natural disaster, the most expensive natural disaster to occur, bar none in this country.”

He said it would have exceeded the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“There were 47 days in 1988 in which we passed 90 degrees and seven days in which we passed 100,” Skilling said. “No single summer has had that number of hot days.”

Skilling is sounding the alarm for this summer if the area does not get much-needed rain.

“What is scary about this year is that we are drier at this point than we were in 1988, going into that summer,” Skilling said.

Illinois farmers remember the drought of 1988 well, too.

Phil King is a plant propagator in McHenry County and grows baby plants in his greenhouses to sell to high-end nurseries, estates and botanic gardens. McHenry County in particular is suffering this year.

“This reminds me of ‘88, but in ‘88 this was July. Late July into August,” said King. “We’re in early June.

King is down 6″ of rain at his farm and records show the region has had only 20 percent the normal amount of rain since March 1. Corn crops are showing signs of stress.

“There is no moisture,” said King. “We’re a foot in the ground and you can see there is no moisture. It should be knee high in 41 days of growth and this corn is well past 41 days. We’re about half way there.”

Deep cracks in the soil and hard layers of dirt are already forming and will send any rain that does fall, away from the roots of the corn where it’s needed. Soybeans are currently holding their own, but farmers overall bank on an inch of rain a week during growing season. Right now, they are getting under 1/4” per week.

Even the small Nippersink Creek, just a few miles from King’s farm, is down almost two feet of water.

“As of last week, it was 40% of what it should be,” King said. “This is pretty early for it to be this low.”

If much-needed rain does not come soon, irrigators could be the crops’ last hope, but only some farmers can afford them.

Homeowners are worried too that their once lush backyards are going to end up burnt and brown. Chicago Botanic Garden Senior Director of Horticulture Tim Johnson shared some tips.

“For lawns, what I do, at least my own lawn at home, I don’t water at all,” said Johnson. “As you get into warmer drier weather, it does tend to go dormant. You tend to lose the nice green color, but then I don’t mow as often.”

Johnson also doesn’t cut the grass as short. He suggests mowing to 3 to 3.5″, rather than 2 or 2.5″. He said it makes for a stronger root system.

“My lawn is always greener than everyone else’s on the block, because I don’t water,” Johnson said.

In regards to your trees and shrubs, Johnson said go ahead and plant this summer. Anything planted in the past two summers needed to be hand-watered at the base.

While a full on drought is not a sure thing yet, there is plenty to watch on the weather front as we head into the real heat of summer.

“We are far enough along this is a real concern,” Skilling said.

With all of the possible negative things to come if the drought comes to fruition, Skilling found a bright spot.

Lake levels have been too high in the last few years, eroding the lakeshore. They have dropped 18″ from a year ago.

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