Lack of rain makes Michigan among driest in Midwest

Evan Carter
The Detroit News

At a time of year when Metro Detroit lawns and gardens need more water than at any point in the year much of the area has been bone dry this month.

As Duncan Knorp of Go Green Lawn & Tree Care in Walled Lake says, it’s the “worst start to summer” in 15 years for many lawns around the region.

The dry spell gripping much of the Lower Peninsula is turning lawns brown, stunting freshly planted gardens, inflaming allergies and jacking up electric bills with homeowners relying heavily on air conditioners.

Rain last Thursday didn’t help much, with less than one-tenth of an inch of accumulation, according to the National Weather Service.

Jeffrey Andresen, state climatologist and co-director of Enviro-weather at Michigan State University, said precipitation in some parts of the state have been 25 percent of normal or less.

“That makes southeastern Michigan one of the driest areas of the Midwest,” he said, adding the state has been dry since mid-May.

In addition to lack of rain, NWS reports that temperatures have already exceeded 80 degrees 16 times this month.

Michigan’s extended period of dryness can’t be pegged to one factor, Andresen said, but is instead what he called “a collective set of bad luck.” He said U-shaped wind patterns in the atmosphere along with the jet stream are two main factors in the lack of rain.

“In order to get precipitation, at one time, you have to have the raw material: that means water vapor, and you have to have a way for the material into the atmosphere and we haven’t had that,” he said.

Little rain and a hot spell are harbingers of things to come in the months ahead. Temperatures in the Lower Peninsula are expected to be hotter than normal during the summer months, and according to Andresen, temperatures were 1 to 2 degrees warmer than normal so far in June.

Dave Samuhel, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather, said rain is expected to be below normal by a couple of inches for the rest of the summer. It won’t be dry enough for the area to be considered under drought conditions until the end of summer.

He said there’s not much movement in the jet stream and that’s keeping the rain in the southern states. He also attributed Michigan’s weather conditions to the quick fade of El Niño and the beginning of La Niña, two weather drivers that are influenced by water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

Water bills vs. brown lawns

The dry conditions and warmer-than-average temperatures have left front yards throughout the southern half of the state brown and dried out.

In Oak Park, Francis Bocchway adjusted her face mask as she pushed her growling mower over a lawn that was fading from green to a bristly brown.

“My water bills keep going up so I never water the lawn,” said Bocchway, a hospital worker originally from Ghana.

“The lawn is turning brown, but nature will have to water it, not me.”

Bocchway said she wears the mask because of the dust caused by the mini-drought.

“I need it to prevent allergies,” she said. “Cutting sends up so much dust.”

In Royal Oak, John Winkler was on his hands and knees, digging out any weed that dared to establish camp in front of his home.

“I haven’t watered, which is pretty obvious,” said Winkler, who gestured at a well-kept but thirsty patch of grass.

“I guess it looks OK, but it has a lot of clover in it, but at least clover is kind of green and it’s hardier than grass.”

Dealing with hot and dry periods during the summer is not out of the ordinary for lawn care professionals, but according to Knorp, conditions are drier earlier this year than is typical.

“We’ve had years like this in the past,” he said. “Plants usually won’t die; they go into drought protection, go dormant.”

Lawn care professionals in Jackson began experiencing similarly dry conditions this week, while those in Holland reported improving lawn conditions after a few good rains.

Golf club grounds crews have been able to mostly maintain courses, but even they haven’t been able to avoid the effects of dry conditions.

Dan Dingman, golf course superintendent at Birmingham Country Club, said that while the course’s greens, fairways and tee boxes are in good condition, the rough is not as lush as it has been in past years.

According to Andresen, the early warm temperatures have allowed crops to begin their growing season earlier, and dry weather hasn’t yet caused much damage.

Risk of fires, bad allergies

In addition to lawns turning brown, the lack of rain has state Fire Marshal Julie Secontine advising residents to avoid outdoor fires.

“The Fourth of July weekend is coming up,” she said. “If you absolutely feel the necessity of grilling on grass, which we don’t advise in these conditions, water down the area of grass you’re grilling on.”

She also advises residents to light off fireworks from cement surfaces.

The dry and hot weather is also making life harder on those with allergies, says Beaumont’s Devang Doshi, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology.

“When we get rain, it actually weighs down on the pollen and the pollen count goes down,” Doshi said.

Doshi suggested nasal saline sprays and artificial tears for those affected, but also said that patients should consult with their physician to ensure over-the-counter drugs don’t conflict with medicines they’re already taking.

Not everyone sees this dry spell as a negative.

Matt Pardy, supervisor of Oakland County’s Red Oaks County Park, said crowds have been enjoying the dry weather and heat, pushing Red Oaks Waterpark to near record highs.

“We’ve definitely seen that it’s helped at the beginning part of the season, with the weather,” he said. “This is looking like one of the busier Junes, one of the hotter or dryer Junes than we’ve had in a while.”

Michigan’s marinas thrive

The weather has also been enjoyed by boating enthusiasts, a positive sign for Michigan’s marinas.

Miller Marina in St. Clair Shores has only three wells left for boats.

Chip Miller, president and owner of Miller Marina, said the dry weather and hot temperatures have encouraged those who wouldn’t necessarily go out on the water.

“People have the opportunity to use their boats whenever they want without getting rained on,” he said. “Most people are fair-weather boaters and they like boating in this type of climate.”

But on dry land, Detroit resident Eric Greene muscled a power mower over a hilly patch of grass next to his home just off Woodward.

“I used to cut the grass every week, now I’m doing it once every two to two and a half weeks,” Greene said.

“When you look around you can see that all the grass around here is turning brown.”

So far, Greene has refused to water his lawn.

“Not with the cost of water as high as it is,” said Greene, looking up at a cloudless sky.

“I want Mother Nature to do the watering. Maybe I should do a little rain dance.”

(313) 222-2613

Freelance writer Tom Greenwood contributed.

Where’s the rain?

For the month of June, there have been:

■12 days with no rain

■7 days with a trace

■4 days with at least 0.01 inches

■Detroit has experienced 1.3 inches of precipitation

■The normal amount of rain by June 23 is 2.75 inches

Source: National Weather Service Office in White Lake