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updated: 7/25/2012 10:08 AM

It rained! So is the drought over? Not quite

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  • Tuesday's storm brought some much-needed rain to the area.  "We're slowly starting to turn the corner here, but we still need several weeks of good rains," a meteorologist said.

      Tuesday's storm brought some much-needed rain to the area. "We're slowly starting to turn the corner here, but we still need several weeks of good rains," a meteorologist said.
    Jeff Knox | Daily Herald

 
 

Is it over?

Have the recent rains ended this summer's drought, saved our plants, and spared the Midwest's corn crop?

Here in the suburbs, Tuesday's storms helped bring monthly precipitation to near-normal levels, according to AccuWeather.com. More rain is expected Thursday.

But don't pack your sprinkler away just yet. We still have August ahead of us.

As for local conditions, here's an update from local landscaping, weather and water experts:

1. Is the drought over?

No. AccuWeather.com says the Midwest drought is "as severe as ever." While conditions in the suburbs have improved this past week, it remains brutally dry south and west of the city. This month, O'Hare International Airport has had 2.75 inches of rain, compared with 0.31 inches in Champaign or 1 inch in Decatur, according to AccuWeather.com meteorologist Dale Mohler.

"It takes more than one rain to bring us out of a drought that's been ongoing for two months," Mohler said. "We're slowly starting to turn the corner here, but we still need several weeks of good rains."

As proof it's still a crisis, a delegation of Illinois politicians acted Tuesday to help Illinois farmers and communities affected by the current drought by requesting a disaster declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

2. Do I have to keep watering my grass, trees and flowers?

Maybe. Newer plantings need more attention (and water) than older ones, and watering is recommended when there's been less than an inch of rain per week. That's likely to be the case at the end of this week. Most established plantings -- including trees, bushes and grass -- can survive two weeks without extra watering, said Mike Davison, the greenhouse manager at Platt Hill Nursery in Bloomingdale.

Landscapers warn against over-watering, which can drown a plant's roots. Brown lawns and shrubs are often just dormant, and will "green up" after getting water. Grass needs just a half inch of water every three weeks to stay alive, said John Heaton, owner of Knupper's Nursery & Landscape in Palatine. For green grass, he recommends a half inch of water twice a week (for a total of 1-inch). Most flowers and plants shouldn't be watered daily, and mulch can help maintain a moderate soil temperature and moisture level, he said.

3. If my trees/bushes are brown, will they come back, or should I get rid of them now?

If you've been watering, and they're still brown, they could be dead.

"If the leaves have some green to them, they're still alive. If they're brown and crispy ... I'd probably rip them out," Davison said. "If the stems are pliable, if you bend them and they don't bend in half, there's hope for your shrubs."

4. Have a lot of trees died this summer?

Yes. Many trees suffered irreparable damage from the hot, dry summer, and if they haven't died already, they might face a slow death, Heaton said. Those that survived might have weakened defense mechanisms, making them more susceptible to problems like insects and disease.

"There will be (more tree deaths) than normal," Heaton said. "If one tree in a four-block area dies each year, then five will die this year. Some immediately and some in as many as five years."

5. If there are dead-looking branches on trees, should you cut them off?

You don't have to, landscapers say. "I would trim it off for the aesthetics," Heaton said. "It's not going to affect the tree to leave it."

6. What's the status of the state's crops?

Fragile. Two-thirds of the state's corn is considered to be in poor or very poor condition, with only 7 percent in good condition, and none in excellent condition, according a report issued Monday by the Illinois Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That is expected to translate into higher consumer prices.

"Soybeans are going to see some recovery. The corn crop? It's getting so late that I don't think they're every going to turn it around," AccuWeather.com's Mohler said.

7. What's in the forecast?

A cold front moving through the area Thursday will bring another round of storms, possibly with gusty winds. And some of those showers could linger into Friday.

8. Are we looking for more extreme heat, or is that over?

The mercury could hit 100 today. And we still have a notoriously hot August ahead.

"I don't think you're finished," Mohler said. "The worst, as far as dryness, at least for the Chicago area, is over. Temperatures are still going to be above normal, but not quite as high as they've been."

9. Where do we stand in the record books?

Nationally, this is the fourth driest summer in 100 years, AccuWeather reports. The only worse droughts were two in the 1930s (including the Dust Bowl) and one in the 1950s.

10. If I have a private well, is there anything I should know?

Well-water levels drop during a normal summer, which this is not. So it's possible private wells now have lower-than-normal levels. Even though it's rained, aquifers aren't immediately replenished, said Cory Horton, McHenry County's water resource manager.

"We've had a lot of calls from people who say, 'My neighbor keeps watering, and you need to go over and tell him to stop.' But there isn't a governmental agency going around that controls private wells," he said. "While no one's really regulating it, you cross your fingers and hope people do the right thing."

Mark Pfister, Lake County's director of population health services, encourages people on private wells with low pressure or sputtering water to stop using them because they can burn out their pumps, which are costly. They instead should call a well contractor and have the pump lowered.

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