Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


Have You Ever Seen the Rain:

Droughts in Virginia


It could be great for Virginia’s wineries, but rough for the state’s cattle owners if recent drought predictions prove correct. In an April report to the state’s Drought Monitoring Taskforce, the State Climatologist warns of a significant agricultural drought if the state doesn’t get good rains in the near future. The recent downpours up here in northern Virginia may not be enough.


Here’s why. Normally by May of each year, precipitation in the form of rain or snow exceeds by five inches the amount of moisture lost through evaporation or transpiration from plants. (Remember transpiration from high school biology? It occurs when water evaporates from the leaves of plants and in turn is taken up through roots from the soil.) Adequate precipitation allows for extra water storage during the hotter, drier days of summer. In many parts of the state, this hasn’t happened. Since the first of the year, some areas of Virginia have received only 30 percent of the precipitation needed to take them through drier months.


Drought is an odd weather occurrence. Unlike a hurricane, tornado or even a thunderstorm, it is not purely a physical event. Drought occurs when lack of water fails to meet the needs of a region, whether plant, animal or human. It’s not just about insufficient precipitation, but about how water is used. As a 2000 report on drought conditions in southwestern Virginia put it, “Is it Mother Nature or is it us?”


Virginia’s worst drought may have occurred about the time the Jamestown colonists arrived. There are some hints in journals left behind. One colonist wrote that the Algonquian natives asked the colonists to pray to their English gods for rain. They said their own gods weren’t responding. Captain John Smith also reported that the tribe complained of a poor corn crop and would not trade corn with the settlers (“Grimness of Mythic Proportions,” Discover, January 1999).


David Stahle, a dendrochronologist with the University of Arkansas, confirmed these suspicions with his study of tree growth rings on 1,000-year-old bald cypresses in the Tidewater area. Trees add a layer of wood annually, and in wet years that layer grows more than in drier years. Stahle’s research backed up the Jamestown archeologists’ theories. Virginia suffered a seven-year drought from 1606 to 1612. The first 104 Jamestown settlers arrived in 1607. A year later there were only 38 left. Drought is considered a factor in this high mortality rate.


In more recent history, Virginia has suffered several major droughts since the 1900s. The most severe occurred from 1930 to 1932, in the early years of drought conditions that eventually caused the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. There was a lot of prayer for rain in that era, as well; in the 1930s, agriculture was king in the commonwealth.


The most recent drought conditions occurred in 2002. At the time, Governor Mark Warner banned lawn watering, car washing and the filling of swimming pools in most areas of the state. Wells dried up in rural areas as the water table dropped. Warner waived the requirement for a construction permit to the more than 2,000 people who had applied to dig new wells. (“Va. Designates ‘Czar’ to Oversee Drought; Rules Streamlined on Some New Wells,” The Washington Post, August 27, 2002.) In Charlottesville, restaurant owners voluntarily changed to disposable plates. They provided sanitizing wipes as an alternative to hand-washing. Hotels turned off ice-making machines. Some establishments even displaced the water in toilet tanks with gallon jugs or bricks (“Virginia Operators Tap Conservation Steps to Avert Drought Shutdowns,” Nation’s Restaurant News, November 11, 2002).


The drought had an upside, though. The 2002 wine harvest was great! Dry weather helps grapes ripen sooner and aromas and flavors develop better when that happens. Vineyard owners also saved money on mildew-spraying costs in 2002, because fungus doesn’t grow as well in dry weather (“Virginia Drought Good for Vineyards, Wreaks Havoc on Pastures,” Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, August 2, 2002).


However, at Virginia’s 25,000 cattle farms, a drought can have severe economic impact. If pastures aren’t in good shape, farmers have to feed their livestock hay stored for the winter. To avoid using up stored feed, they may sell livestock early to get the best prices, but underweight cattle could force prices lower. This is but one consequence of drought in the Old Dominion, which affects not only agriculture but forests. Dry timber and brush provides fuel for wildfires. Ironically, firefighters need water to combat them. It’s just a catch-22 for everyone, all because no one has seen enough rain.


NEXT: The Humpback Bridge, and Other Virginia Crossings.


-- May 15, 2006














About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.