It’s official: the Kenai Peninsula is in a moderate drought. After months of warm weather and little rain, the United States Drought Monitor moved the pendulum last week for the peninsula beyond just abnormally dry.
Kyra Wagner has noticed something different about the lawns in the Homer area this summer. She’s the district manager of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, which directs local natural resource programs.
She said usually Homer residents never have to water their lawns.
“It's been a joke that people have actually started seeing lawn sprinklers here,” she said. “We've seen lawns die out, and patches of brown show up for people that they've never seen before. So that's just a really basic indicator of what the ordinary routine is and how that's changed.”
Wagner said the drought is creating a crisis for farmers who are having to water their crops more often while at the same time their wells are drying up. There are roughly 260 farms on the peninsula.
Wagner adds that when plants have less water, they’re more likely to be harmed by bugs.
“We have gotten reports of the spruce bark beetle being active again,” she said. “And when spruce trees don't have enough water they can't push it out with the sap when the bugs get into their bark.”
Brad Rippey is a meteorologist based in Washington D.C. and one of the authors of the United States Drought Monitor. The monitor releases a map every week showing which parts of the country are in droughts. For an area to be classified as a moderate drought, there needs to be a likelihood of damage to crops and pastures and some water shortages need to be developing or imminent in streams and reservoirs.
He said it’s normal to see a moderate drought on the Kenai Peninsula once every five to 10 years.
“Well it's certainly not historic at this point, but it is notable,” he said. “You know, looking back at the history of the drought monitor, which is admittedly a fairly short period of record of about 20 years, there have been two other instances where the Kenai Peninsula and surrounding areas have slipped into drought.”
He said the last time the Kenai Peninsula experienced a moderate drought was in 2015 and 2004. The area is part of the growing swath of the state experiencing warmer and dryer weather.
“So the part that's actually in drought, that is at this time confined to the east central Alaskan area, which includes the Yukon Flats and then the Kenai Peninsula,” he said. “Then we have the longer term drought that exists across the Southeast.”
Anchorage is also experiencing a moderate drought. Rippey said the conditions in southeast are much more severe. But even a moderate drought in the Kenai Peninsula and surrounding areas has implications, including the likelihood of a bigger fire season.
“One of the things we're seeing: there's the Swan Lake fire, which has been burning on the Kenai peninsula for quite some time,” said Celine Van Breukelen.
Van Breukelen is a hydrologist for the weather forecast office in Anchorage. She said the lack of precipitation in the Kenai Peninsula is having a large impact on the area’s streams.
“We're seeing the stream flow levels on many of our non-glacier streams to be quite low,” she said.
She said in light of the drought designation, residents might want to start monitoring their water usage. As for when the drought might end….
“The more severe drought that you have, the more precipitation you're going to need in order to get out of it,” she said.
She said the rain in the area today likely won’t cut it.