A billboard, 'Jesus in the Wheat', stands alongside Interstate 70 on 24 August 2012 in Colby, Kansas. The billboard was erected by local residents Tuffy and Linda Taylor. 'We just put it up there to minister', Linda Taylor told the Hays Daily News. CNN

By Greg Botelho
15 September 2012

(CNN) – Well before Hurricane Isaac hit Louisiana and brought localized heavy flooding, the weather story of the summer was not about an abundance of water – it was the lack thereof.

And it still is.

Farmers and residents in 40 states know this all too well, as this summer's blend of low rainfall and extreme heat has created a crisis for many. Over a recent six-week stretch, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 1,692 counties as disaster areas due to the drought. The department notes about 80% of agricultural land in the country is affected, making this year's drought more far-reaching than any since the 1950s.

The impact has been felt by farmers and ranchers nationwide, but they're hardly alone. Outdoor activities, commercial transportation and wildlife have been impacted by the drought, in myriad ways.

Central Illinois: Dozens of dead deer found along rivers and at watering holes

In a three-mile stretch of the Kaskaskia River – a tributary of the Mississippi River about 80 miles southeast of Springfield, Illinois – a group of people found 26 dead deer, according to local resident Karen Forcum, who reported these findings to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.

Many of the deer were tested by animal control officers and found to have a hemorrhagic fever – likely brought on by disease-carrying gnats that thrive in drought conditions, Forcum said. They ended up dying at water sources, she added, in their attempts to cool their fevers, albeit to no avail. Similar deer deaths have been reported in Nebraska near the Lower Platte River, around a lake in Delaware, and elsewhere.

Other animals have also been affected by drought in the rural area known for its forests and farmland, with many fish kills, turtles and other animals reported dead. One of the few species to thrive are turkey vultures, feasting on the carcasses that suddenly abound.

"I think it's all in the hands of nature," said Forcum.

Lower Platte River in Nebraska: Riverbed now looks like a ‘sand volleyball court’

It's not uncommon for the Lower Platte River to dip during the summer, as the hot weather expedites evaporation and irrigation waters flow to nearby farms. Even so, summer is supposed to be fun time in this swath of Nebraska, as people take to canoes and kayaks to enjoy the refreshing waters and great outdoors.

Not this year.

Parts of the Lower Platte look more like a sand volleyball court than a river, according to Meghan Sittler, the Lincoln-based coordinator of the Lower Platte River Corridor Alliance. That's due to a combination of intense heat and a dire shortage of rain, which has affected wildlife and those

The water was moving in other parts of the river, but just barely – at a rate of about 250 feet per cubic second, compared to the norm of 6,000 feet per second, in late August. Sittler said it's not unusual for water temperatures to be in the 92 to 97 degree range.

All these factors have contributed to the deaths of "a huge number of fish," among them endangered pallid surgeon, said Sittler.

"This is very, very rare occurrence," Sittler said of conditions over the 103-mile swath of river her organization oversees. […]

Western Indiana: Hundreds of dead fish and an alarming absence of birds

White pelicans, herons, egrets, and even a number of bald eagles had been frequent summer visitors to lakes, rivers and wetlands in western Indiana.

"But you don't see any of those birds there now," said Michael Gerringer of Terre Haute. […]

From dry rivers to dead deer, drought's impact felt everywhere



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