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updated: 6/28/2012 12:36 PM

Drought, heat wave taking toll on suburbs, farms

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  • A footprint is left in the mud where water should be flowing in the Des Plaines River near Rockland Road east of Libertyville. Lack of rain has left water levels in the river very low.

       A footprint is left in the mud where water should be flowing in the Des Plaines River near Rockland Road east of Libertyville. Lack of rain has left water levels in the river very low.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Lake County farmer Pete Tekampe examines one of his soybean fields near Grayslake that has been affected by the recent drought.

       Lake County farmer Pete Tekampe examines one of his soybean fields near Grayslake that has been affected by the recent drought.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Saving your plants

  • Video: Drought affects local farms

 
 

Farmers are frowning, firefighters are wincing and gardeners are wringing hands as a punishing drought and scorching heat dig in throughout Illinois with no reprieve in sight.

Temperatures expected to hit 100 today and less than 2 inches of rain since May 8 -- half the norm -- add up to a perfect non-storm, experts said.

"It's a pretty ominous forecast," state climatologist Jim Angel said of the dry spell, "and I'm not very optimistic because there's nothing in the immediate future to bring much relief. I'm worried about this one."

The prospect of triple-digit heat led authorities to plan to open cooling centers and ask that people check on vulnerable neighbors, especially the elderly. Firefighters warned pre-Fourth of July revelers against at-home fireworks, saying the fire risk is high.

Grayslake farmer Pete Tekampe's 200 acres of soybeans are hurting and his corn is in peril, although salvageable.

"It's not good," Tekampe summed up. "We're missing all those rains." He uses a pivot watering system and "outside the pivot, the ground looks like the day I planted it."

"If we don't get some rain, it's going to cut into the chance of making any profit this year. All the other expenses have gone up and if there's not a yield ... the good year (2011) will be eaten by this bad year," said Tekampe, the Fremont Township supervisor.

The heat wave should continue over the weekend with the chance of rain slim. The nexus of dry/hot conditions contributed to a wildfire at Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve in Barrington Monday when a passing train sparked the blaze. Other incidents of brush and grass fires this week led the Lake County Fire Chiefs Association to warn residents Wednesday against using legal sparklers and illegal fireworks on July Fourth.

Meanwhile, calls are pouring into the Morton Arboretum's plant clinic about wilting blooms.

Flowers, shrubs and trees are "definitely stressing," said Doris Taylor, plant information specialist at the Lisle institution.

"The drought is taking a toll on plants. We might be seeing browning, edges might be wilting. We're getting to the point now where even the larger trees could use some water."

The key is to prioritize, Taylor advised. Annuals and new plantings will require deep watering, preferably in the morning. Even established trees will need a little help with the extreme conditions.

"Forget about the lawn," she said.

One more tip: Water the tree roots, not the leaves. "I see people watering the leaves and they think they're watering the tree. You need to get the hose down in the ground," Taylor advised.

It's been so bad that Mike and Velma Downes, owners of More Than Delicious Orchard in Woodstock, won't open their popular farm for apple picking this year. A warm March caused trees to bloom earlier than usual and an April freeze killed off what was blooming.

The result? Very few apples in the trees, threatened even more by the lack of precipitation. "If we did have a crop, the big story would be that, because of the drought, we would be hauling irrigation hoses around the orchard all summer. As it is, we are having to water the new trees that we planted this spring in an effort to keep them alive until they can get established," the Downeses wrote in an email.

So do thirsty plants mean their owners are turning into scofflaws in the face of municipal watering restrictions?

That's not the case in West Dundee at least, which enacted a temporary watering ban June 21 in the midst of the drought because a well is being serviced. Despite the dry conditions, most residents seem to be honoring the prohibition, Public Works Director Rich Babica said.

"There have only been five verbal warnings issued that I'm aware of," Babica said. "A lot of people are holding on watering their turf because of the economic times."

How does this year's drought rack up against historic norms?

It's not as harsh as the droughts of 1988 and 2005 -- yet -- experts say. However, the National Weather Service and U.S. Drought Monitor both are calling the drought situation in Illinois serious. Rainfall deficits since May 8 are "particularly severe," at a time that is normally the wettest of the year, the weather service said.

Using rainfall at O'Hare International Airport as an indicator, there has been 12.65 inches of rainfall in the region between Jan. 1 and June 21, nearly 3 inches less than the average of 15.55 inches. In 2011, 22.56 inches of rain came down.

While a front could bring some rain to the area today, the chances are only 20 percent, National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Bardou said. Several other weather systems could alter the dry spell next week, but that's a big if and "it's not a rainy pattern," Bardou said.

Scorching temperatures are also unusual. The average high this June was 84.4 degrees compared to 30-year averages of 79.7. The average temperature this month was 73.1 degrees, or 5 degrees higher than historic numbers.

The limited rainfall has contributed to dry streambeds, with the Des Plaines, DuPage and Fox rivers registering low levels, climatologist Angel said.

If the drought continues into July 4 festivities, local fire chiefs are bracing for the combination of dry vegetation and fireworks.

In Barrington, where the annual fireworks display traditionally takes place in the high school field, firefighters will take precautions.

"Typically, what we do the day before and day of is to hose down that field so it's wet enough not to cause any really big problems," Barrington Assistant Fire Chief Christian Toussaint said.

Fire officials urged people not to go rogue with their own fireworks displays.

"It's dangerous enough in and of itself, but the extremely dry conditions projected for next week could make for even more dangerous conditions," Schaumburg Fire Chief Jim Schumann said.

• Daily Herald staff writer Elena Ferrarin contributed to this report.

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