Major storm waters down extreme drought in Neb.

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 15, 2013

Drought map

This week’s snowfall — up to 20 inches in some places — begins to ease Nebraska’s record drought. Click the map to view the animation. Graphic courtesy of the Department of Agriculture.

For months, Nebraska has languished in the most intense drought on record. This week, it finally saw respite.

Yesterday’s Drought Monitor indicated that the area of Nebraska in exceptional drought — the most severe category — has shrunk by 80 percent. Nevertheless, the state is still overwhelmed by extreme drought, the second-worst category.

This week marks the highest amount of snow and rainfall — up to 20 inches in some parts — in the past 12 months.

“Hopefully, it’s just a start,” said David Miskus, a senior meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center and the author of this week’s Drought Monitor. “It’s a good omen for their rainy season.”

This is the first of what need to be many more storm systems in order for the central Great Plains to pull out of the drought, said Miskus.

“This was a huge event,” said Bryce Anderson, an agricultural meteorologist. “It moved the needle, so to speak, because of the benefits it brought to soil moisture.

It didn’t end the drought in the state, said Anderson, but it bought Nebraska farmers a little time before resorting to irrigation, a more expensive and exhaustive method of watering crops than rain. In dire times, he said, farmers may have needed irrigation simply to sprout the seed out of the ground. Because of the storm, it’s likely they won’t need to resort to pumping until late May.

The storm came into the state Monday and cleared out by Thursday morning, said Allen Dutcher, Nebraska’s state climatologist. Precipitation, which includes both rain and snow, amounted to 1 to 20 inches of liquid equivalent with heavier loads falling on the eastern portion of the state.

The odds of the drought, he said, have gone from a one-in-100-year or one-in-50-year event to a one-in-20-year event.

“Even though we improve, it’s not much of an improvement,” said Dutcher.

Reversing the damage takes longer

While the state has a chance of getting back to normal in the agricultural sense, it won’t be as easy in terms of restoring underground and overground water supplies, said Dutcher. There are two years of deficit accumulation that have to be undone. It wasn’t until 2008 that the state’s aquifers recovered from the three droughts in 2000, 2002 and 2006, he said.

“It takes us considerably longer to undo the damage from hydrological drought,” he said.

The storm has brought a fair amount of optimism across the Midwest and the Great Plains with the exception of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, said Anderson. The heavy snow has set back opportunities to go into the fields and prepare for the planting season.

Last year, those four states accounted for about a quarter of total U.S. corn production.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much fieldwork until the first of May,” Anderson said.

Relief comes in time for corn planting

In the eastern Corn Belt, scientists monitoring the drought realized that the soils were holding more moisture than previously thought, according to the Drought Monitor. This comes as good news for the region, where farmers are preparing for the beginning of corn planting season.

According to the Agriculture Department’s most recent Prospective Plantings survey, an estimated 97.3 million acres of corn will be planted this year, the largest planted acreage since 1936. Many new acres are expected to be sown outside of the Corn Belt in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Arkansas, said Paul Bertels, vice president of production and utilization for the National Corn Growers Association. Soybean acreage is expected to be the fourth-highest on record.

Last year’s corn crop yielded 10.8 billion bushels, more than a quarter less than what USDA expected last spring. Optimistic estimates in May 2012 shriveled as the drought intensified at the peak of the growing season.

Extreme and exceptional drought across the Southwest intensified this week, especially in Arizona and New Mexico. The summer monsoons could provide relief, said Miskus. Southern and western Texas remain dry.

Reservoirs are still very low in New Mexico and Nevada, he added