WHEELING - The National Weather Service is predicting a slow recovery from the drought conditions that have plagued more than half the continental U.S., officials monitoring the situation said Monday.
But even though the Upper Ohio Valley has escaped the worst impacts of what has been one of the driest summers in recent memory, experts are keeping an eye out for water quality issues that often accompany such dry spells, including fish kills and harmful algae blooms.
NWS hydrologist Jim Noel said areas south of the Ohio River, including central Tennessee and eastern Kentucky into West Virginia, have seen improvement with above average rainfall over the past 30 days. That trend has been less apparent north of the river, although East Ohio is faring much better than the western reaches of the Buckeye State and nearby Indiana, Illinois and western Kentucky.
STOPPING BY — Two Canada geese visit Heritage Port along the Ohio River in Wheeling. Although the Upper Ohio Valley has been among the areas in the river basin least affected by the current drought, officials are monitoring the possibility of biological side effects from the dry spell. -- Ian Hicks
Last week's pattern of rainy weather should continue this week and next, Noel said, and the scorching temperatures - topping 100 degrees at times - that characterized much of July should be less extreme in August. But rainfall several inches above normal would be needed to put a short-term end to the drought, he noted.
"It takes a while to get into droughts, and it takes a while to get out of them. ... It's going to be a slow road to improvement, but we could see some moderation in that drought as we go into fall," said Noel.
The past two years have been a study in extremes, said Noel. Last year was the wettest on record for much of the Ohio River basin, including the state of Ohio, and was nearly so for West Virginia - but 2012 to this point has been among the 10 driest years in the past 170 for much of the area except West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, which still have been drier than normal.
There are three reservoirs in the Monongahela River basin that supply additional water to support navigation and water quality on the Ohio River. Since June, about 60 percent of the water flowing past the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers at Pittsburgh has been from those reservoirs, officials said.
Drought conditions can lead to warmer water temperatures on the surface and depleted oxygen levels at lower depths, increasing the likelihood of fish kills. These conditions also can lead to the rapid growth of naturally occurring algae, also known as "algae blooms," that can kill animals and cause severe skin reactions and gastrointestinal illness in humans.
No blooms have been reported upstream of the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio, but elsewhere in the basin pet deaths have been linked to algae blooms near W.H. Harsha Lake just east of Cincinnati and Salamonie Lake southwest of Fort Wayne, Ind. Less severe blooms have been reported in southern Indiana and southwestern Ohio, while bloom "watches" have been issued at several locations in South Central Ohio.
The Ohio River is 10-15 feet lower than normal levels at Cairo, Ill., where it empties into the Mississippi River. Despite lower than normal flow along the length of the river, no major navigation issues have been reported.