-- — INDIANAPOLIS - Forget worrying about the drought killing your lawn and start worrying about wildfires.
State officials are raising alarm bells about the seriousness of the state's bone-dry conditions, likening them to the Dust Bowl years of the early 1930s.
The state's Department of Homeland Security and Department of Natural Resources have issued a "water shortage warning" across Indiana, triggering a call for voluntary conservation measures that may soon become mandatory.
At a press conference Wednesday, state and federal officials warned of water shortages, wildfires, dried up wells and reservoirs and widespread damage to farmlands and forests – all caused by a relentless drought and a continuing demand for water.
"We don't want to stand here as Chicken Little and say the sky is falling," said Homeland Security director Joe Wainscott. But it may be, if something dramatic – like a tropical storm or a massive water-conservation effort – doesn't happen soon.
Public water supply systems across the state are being asked to cut back usage by 10 to 15 percent and to update their contingency plans if the state imposes mandatory measures, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels warned Wednesday that he may have to do.
After months of sparse rainfall and intense heat, much of Indiana is now in a severe to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which updates conditions weekly.
That's a dangerous place to be. Indiana State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson said there is a "90 percent chance", soon to turn into a 100 percent chance, that a smoldering cigarette flicked out of a car by a motorist would start a fire.
As a stark reminder of the danger, the Indiana Department of Transportation is putting up highway signs this week along the interstates, warning motorists to watch for wildfires. Earlier this week, the Indiana State Police were given the green light to crack down on motorists seen throwing cigarette butts out the window.
"We could end up with the kind of wildfires they have out West," Wainscott said. He said fires have already broken out in some state forests, but were brought under control.
Weirdly, just as Wainscott was starting the press conference, held at the State Government Center, there was a cloudburst of rain outside. But it did little more than provide fodder for some dark humor. The ground is so dry, that it would take several weeks of sustained rainfall to catch up to the 6 to 10 inches of rainfall deficit across much of the state, weather officials said.
A week ago, only about one-third of Indiana's 92 counties were under a water-shortage warning. As of Tuesday, every county was under the warning.
Mark Basch, head of DNR's Division of Water, said the state overall will have "plenty of water" if conservation measures are taken and water resources are shared among communities. Some cities, including Indianapolis, have imposed some mandatory conservation measures but many are still relying on residents to voluntarily cut back their water usage.
But Al Shipe, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, doesn't share Basch's optimism. Shipe said Indiana is likely heading toward an "historic drought" with ominous consequences if the drought continues through the summer and if water usage isn't dramatically cut back.
"We may not have water to drink. We may not have water to fight fires with," Shipe said. If his tone sounded alarmist, it was intentional. "I still see people watering their sidewalks when I'm driving to work," he said.
Indiana's farmers are already feeling the pain in lost crops and/or rising costs associated with keeping their livestock watered and fed. Farmers in 80 of Indiana's 92 counties now qualify some kind of disaster relief from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
State officials and weather experts had been likening this summer's drought to a record drought of 1988. But no more, the drought and its accompanying relentless heat that has a grip on the Midwest is breaking 50-year-old records.
"In many ways, we're in uncharted territory," Wainscott said. "The only parallels I can make are to 1934 and 1936, the Dust Bowl years. It's really that bad."
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com