An ongoing drought is starting to damage some of Lowndes County’s roads.
County Road Manager Ronnie Burns said the drought is causing the ground to move, which is cracking paved roads.
“What it does when it gets real dry is it just splits wide open, and that causes the road base to split open and it’ll crack the road all the way to the top,” Burns said. “When it does that, it busts the road open and some of the road might settle down lower than the other part.”
Burns said it’s hard to tell how much the drought will ultimately end up costing the county for road repairs. So far the road department has spent about $60,000 fixing roads damaged by the drought in the last four to six weeks.
“In some of those places, when it gets to raining a lot, they’ll close back up some,” Burns said. “The ground moves back and forth, so really, we have no idea how much it would cost to fix them all right now. We need a rain, because the longer this goes, the worse it will be.”
Drought is gripping parts of the Southeast, including the Golden Triangle. Portions of Lowndes County are experiencing a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. A hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson previously told The Dispatch earlier this month that portions of Lowndes County had received as little as 5 to 10 percent of what would be considered normal.
Assistant Road Manager Mike Aldridge said problems are arising in east and west Lowndes County. However, he said the issue is more pronounced in the prairie west of the Tennessee-Tombigbee River because the dirt is more susceptible to drying out and shifting.
When possible, Aldridge said, the county uses its paving machine to fix the roads to try to prevent them from cracking back up. Otherwise, crews patch the roads by hand.
“We’re going in and doing some patchwork on them trying to get them through this drought we’re in,” he said.
Aldridge said affected roads include Taylor Thurston, Allison Hardy, Industrial Park and Old West Point roads.
Burns noted that the drought is causing some issues for the county’s gravel roads, but they aren’t as severe as with paved roads. He said the dry conditions prevent the county from using road graders to smooth the gravel roads out, which has led to rougher roads in places.
Lowndes County maintains 658 miles of paved road and 142 miles of gravel road, Burns said. That does not include roads inside Columbus city limits.
Burns said he’s put all five of his road grader crews out on gravel roads to try to catch up on work after some rain passed through the area on Thursday.
“When you’re trying to grade the roads when it’s so dry, it’s just like sandblasting your blades,” Burns said. “You’d go through a set of blades in a day.”
A safety issue
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders said to completely fix the roads and protect them against similar issues in the future, the county would have to cut down roadside trees because their roots absorb moisture from the soil beneath the road and cause it to shrink and shift during droughts. He said that’s especially problematic west of the river due to the clay in the soil.
After that, he said the county would have to tear up the roads, replace the road beds with lime or concrete, and repave.
He said Lowndes County has done that with some roads in the past, but it’s a very expensive process and often bogs down in getting permission from landowners to remove trees beside the road.
“Certainly there’s a cost concern,” he said. “But without a big tax increase or getting some help from the state, we can’t do much. …We’ve got to find a revenue stream somewhere in order to be able to fix the infrastructure on our roads.
“It’s going to be an expensive process,” he added. “It’s going to be time-consuming, because you can’t do them all at once and you have to pick out the worst ones. It’s getting to be a safety issue in some places.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.