State environmental officials found up to 2,000 dead catfish near the mouth of the Neuse River, and they believe the drought conditions may have caused the fish to go belly up.

The fish, found Monday in Upper Broad Creek near New Bern, likely died from excess exposure to salt water, said Susan Massengale, a spokeswoman with the state Division of Water Quality. Officials believe the saline water, aided by wind and low river levels, mixed into normally fresh water habitats.

"We're not getting the fresh water coming through those creeks, so the saline water is starting to creep back up," Massengale said. "It's something we see with a severe drought."

The Neuse River originates in North Carolina's piedmont and empties into Pamlico Sound near New Bern on the central North Carolina coast. Massengale said the dead fish don't pose any health risks, but officials are looking to see if the problem is happening elsewhere.

"It's possible that this isn't the only place this is happening, given the extensiveness of the drought," Massengale said.

North Carolina faced one of the hottest and driest months on record in August, a culmination of weather conditions that put more than three-quarters of the state under a severe drought as of Monday. The entire state has been suffering from some level of drought for at least two weeks, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The fish are just the latest casualty of the dry conditions. Water systems covering more than 2 million people across the state including those for Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro, have implemented mandatory water restrictions.

Farmers have been hit especially hard.

One of the largest expected corn crops in decades has been reduced to the lowest yield since 2002, according to state figures. And most of the North Carolina's counties have posted a 30 percent loss or more of at least one significant crop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gov. Mike Easley has requested federal disaster relief for farmers who suffered major crop losses.

Meanwhile, the number of wildfires and scorched acreage has already surpassed 10-year averages, according to the state Division of Forest Resources. The state also announced an indefinite ban on open burning.

Jason Beaman, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Raleigh, said the state likely won't see any precipitation through this week as a high pressure system continues to dominate the forecast.

"There's a slight chance of rain coming in at the end of the weekend, but even then it will be very minimal and not very widespread," he said.