Drought’s silver lining? Better wine, less trashy beaches

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Photo: RaeAllen (flickr)

While corn and soybean growers lament a poor harvest, Great Lakes winemakers are enjoying great grapes as the result of the drought.

 U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook by the National Weather Service reports one-quarter of the country is still experiencing extreme heat. Exceptional drought has hit the Great Lakes area, especially in southern Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.

The negative impact is huge: Drought lowers not only water levels, it harms some crop, fruit and vegetable yields. It causes wildlife disease and deaths.

But it also has a small group of positive impacts.

Grape farmers and wine sellers are definitely enjoying a better year, said Donnie Winchell, the executive director of the Ohio Wine Association. “The drought could lead to an overall growth of the wine industry.

“Grapes don’t do well with high humidity,” Winchell said. And the dry weather concentrates flavors and sugar, helping to produce high quality wine.

Ohio benefits most from the dry weather, Winchell said. “We grow wine grapes such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the north.”

Those types of grapes grow better under lower humidity compared with other species, she said. “They will be gorgeous this year because of the dry weather.”

But wine growers in other Great Lakes states are also benefiting from the dry weather, she said. “New York state and Michigan are having a really great season.”

Other crops are not in anywhere near that good of shape. But while farmers suffer from the dry weather, the irrigation supply business is booming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the nation’s average bushes of corn per acre is at its lowest point since 1995. It also cut estimates for the soybean harvest.

“The water level drops quite a bit,” said Don Knoblett, president of the Illinois Irrigation Association. “There is still water there, but we need to go deeper into the ground to get it.”

And that means the sale of more irrigation supplies.

Workers at irrigation supply companies worked 12 hours or more per day during the summer, helping farmers and ranchers stretch water supplies, Knoblett said.

 Another bright spot is that scientists say low water is good news for certain kinds of lakefront vegetation.

“Lake Michigan’s water level is 23 inches below 2011’s average level,” said Mark Breederland, an extension educator for Michigan Sea Grant, a program that promotes conservation and use of Michigan’s coastal resources.

Researchers at the University of Ottawa and the University of Michigan’s herbarium tested four basic shoreline vegetation types including forest and shrub thickets, wet meadow, marsh and aquatic. They found that low water periods allow many mud flat annuals, meadow and emergent marsh species to regenerate from buried seeds.

 “In this way, vegetation would able to get enough sunshine and have their roots inserted a little bit lower,” Breederland said. “Changes of water levels can benefit the wild land ecosystem.”

Volunteers sort trash during a beach cleanup at Michigan’s Grand Haven State Park. Image: Jamie Cross via Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Yet another benefit of the drought: It may have helped keep trash off of beaches.

Fewer overflowing sewers would minimize trash washed out from communities and make Great Lakes’ beach clean up easier, said Jamie Cross, the beach and shoreline cleanup program manager from Alliance for the Great Lakes,

Cross said normally trash thrown out by communities is washed up by rains or flooding.  It then goes into the sewage system and eventually flows into lakes and thus washed up on beaches.

“There was seldom rain this summer so no major trash wash-ups,” Cross said.

But less trash will not reduce his year’s beach cleanup program.

“Our program is to get people out into the beach, to connect them to the nature and to educate them to protect our beaches and lakes,” Cross said. “Droughts can come and go, but the idea of environmental protection always needs to be there.”

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