- Associated Press - Thursday, July 15, 2010

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A drought watch has been issued for Virginia as a long hot, dry spell has stunted crops, heightened the threat of wildfires and drawn down reservoirs.

The watch issued Wednesday by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is intended to increase awareness of a possible drought as the state heads into the statistically driest months of the year.

The department is urging voluntary measures statewide to protect water supplies.

Recent rains have done little to ease parched conditions. Among the primary factors leading to the watch:

— Eighty-six percent of the state is experiencing abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions, as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

— Most of Virginia has recorded below-normal precipitation in the last 60 days; short-term forecasts do not indicate a change in that pattern.

— Stream monitoring stations show water flows below normal ranges, particularly in southeast and central Virginia.

— Wildfire conditions are at levels normally seen much later in the summer months. Twenty localities already have issued burning bans.

— Large reservoirs such as Lake Moomaw, Smith Mountain Lake, Kerr Reservoir and Philpott Reservoir have been slowly declining since June.

Virginia growers have been especially hard hit by the scorching temperatures and dry conditions. The state commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services said the early arrival of hot, dry conditions has been difficult to overcome.

“Normally, if you have a late drought, your crops are a little better along,” Matthew J. Lohr said. “It’s been weeks since we’ve had measurable rain.”

Kevin Engel farms leased land in 14 Virginia counties. He grows corn for feed and store shelves, barley, wheat and soybeans. He said conditions throughout all his fields are uniformly bad.

“A very large majority of corn in our area will not yield anything, even if it rains now,” he said. He had to replant 200 acres of soybeans burned by the sun, even though the field was irrigated.

“There’s going to be quite a serious blow to Virginia’s No. 1 industry this year,” Mr. Engel said.

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