Drought still getting worse in Nebraska

Source: By Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Friday, August 17, 2012

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Cattle wander into a dry watering hole in Kasey Tobias’ pasture in Sargent, Neb., last month.

Browned-out pastures and brisk business at sale barns testify to an ever-worsening drought in Nebraska.

In the past week the percentage of the state in the worst category of drought — exceptional — has grown by roughly six times, making Nebraska one of the few states where conditions have deteriorated markedly week to week.

Nearly 23 percent of Nebraska is in exceptional drought, up from less than 4 percent last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a national drought map published every Thursday. Otherwise, conditions changed little in Nebraska, all of which is in some level of drought.

In Iowa, the opposite has happened. The week brought a noticeable improvement across the central part of the state, though all of Iowa also remains in drought.

Nationwide, drought conditions appear to be leveling off and even improving around the edges, said Jim Angel, an Illinois state climatologist who spoke about drought at a national weather briefing Thursday.

Across the lower 48 states, 61.8 percent is in some level of drought, an improvement of less than one percentage point over the week before, according to the Drought Monitor map, published jointly by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Despite the overall leveling off, the heart of the country — Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma — has fared markedly worse, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the center.

It’s in those states that exceptional drought now covers from 23 percent (Nebraska) to 68 percent (Oklahoma) of the land, he said, compared with about 6.3 percent in the lower 48.

Exceptional drought is the most severe classification possible, for an area experiencing a one-in-50-year to one-in-100-year shortfall of rain, said Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist.

As a side note, Dutcher said the classification doesn’t take into account temperatures. If it did, the drought in Nebraska would fall into a less unusual category, perhaps a one-in-30-year to one-in-40-year event.

In the worst-hit areas of central and southwest Nebraska, rainfall in the past month has been running less than 25 percent of normal, Dutcher said. For the growing season, those areas have seen about 25 percent to 35 percent of normal rainfall, he said.

The areas that have been the driest are largely range and pastureland, with some cropland intermixed, said Jerry Volesky, range and forage specialist for the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center.

For the most part, the worsening drought doesn’t change the equation for cattle ranchers, because they’re already cutting their losses, he said. Ranchers have been paring herds to a size that can be sustained through winter. Any rain the remainder of summer and fall will not change their minds, he said.

Melody Benjamin, a vice president with the Nebraska Cattlemen, said anecdotal evidence indicates that this drought will cause about a 10 percent reduction in Nebraska’s cows.

Cows are the females that give ranchers the means to enlarge their herds, and ranchers avoid selling cows if at all possible. Otherwise, most of the increased business at sale barns this summer has been the accelerated sale of feeder cattle, a type of cattle sold every year.

Conditions in the Omaha and Lincoln areas were unchanged over the past week, according to the drought map. Both metropolitan areas are considered in the second-worst category, extreme drought.

The difference between exceptional and extreme drought is whether crop and pasture losses are widespread or simply “major,’’ and whether water shortages have reached an emergency level.