Drought of ’80 was reminder that rainy days aren’t all bad

Published 4:35 pm Tuesday, June 22, 2021

More than 5 inches of rain in much of Isle of Wight and Surry broke the back of an increasingly dry spell over the past few weeks and proved once again that if you don’t like the weather in Hampton Roads, just wait a bit and it will change.

It takes an average of about an inch of rain a week during summer to provide the soil moisture necessary to grow crops in our temperate corner of the world. Since April, we’d had very little rain until those showers began coming through in late May. The dry conditions were all the more frustrating because they developed after we had experienced a wetter-than-normal winter.

As a result, everything from cotton fields to garden patches were struggling to survive. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains a drought information system, and for a couple of weeks, it listed Isle of Wight and part of Surry as being in a “moderate drought” condition, which confirmed what farmers already knew. Crops were stressed.

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It’s been amazing how quickly things can change. On March 1, Southeast Virginia was wet. The region had experienced about 2 inches more rainfall than normal since Jan. 1. By late May, the region was several inches below normal for the year to date. That’s a big change.

Growing up on an Isle of Wight farm, I learned early the value of summer rainfall. In the selfish corner of a child’s brain, rain meant more grass to hoe and pull from peanuts back in those days. But we also understood from an early age that adequate rain meant there would be peanuts under the vines come fall. And there were years when that was a forlorn hope.

Periods of drought are nothing new in our region. History records that droughts occurred in 1930-32 and again in 1938-42. Those were well before my time. Other dry spells occurred in the early 1950s and late 1960s.

Fortunately, most are short-lived. One that seemed as though it would never end occurred 41 years ago, in 1980. In Isle of Wight, Surry and Southampton, the corn crop was totally destroyed and peanut yields were reduced to about a third of normal.

The Blackwater River all but dried up. Landowners found dugout canoes in dry riverbeds in both Isle of Wight and Surry locations. They had been used in the Blackwater as early as colonial times and largely been underwater since.

The operators of Union Camp’s giant papermill at the southern end of Isle of Wight announced the mill would have to be shut down because the low flow in the Blackwater was preventing the discharge of treated wastewater generated by paper production.

During that drought, the great debate over the use of deep aquifer well water reached new heights. Norfolk’s reservoirs were dangerously low, and the city wanted to drill wells in Suffolk and Isle of Wight. Naturally, it also wanted to own and control the wells along with the water they produced.

Both Isle of Wight and Suffolk fought the city’s plan. The matter ended up in court, and in an ironic twist, Isle of Wight cut a deal with Virginia Beach, which was to be the end receiver of the water. The county drilled wells and sold the water to Virginia Beach.

By 1981, the drought was easing, and that fall, we reported an average peanut harvest. By then, two large, deep wells in Isle of Wight and two more in Suffolk were sending water into Norfolk’s lakes to supply Virginia Beach. The drought had stressed water supplies so severely that even as conditions eased, the Resort City kept pumping water to build a reserve in the lakes.

Isle of Wight would later deed its wells to the Western Tidewater Authority, which it helped create during the drought.

The water crisis brought about by that drought also led eventually to construction of the Lake Gaston pipeline, which transfers water from the Chowan basin lake into the Norfolk lake system at Windsor.

Droughts thus have a way of focusing attention on the value of water that in good times we take for granted.

The next time a local meteorologist says the weekend might be ruined by rain, think positive. What he or she probably ought to say is that the region will greatly benefit from rain.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.