Drought Eases In The East, But Still Worrisome Out West

May 20, 2013
Originally published on May 17, 2013 11:19 am

The federal agencies saddled with doom-and-gloom forecasts have mixed news (PDF) for the vast regions of the country that have been suffering from drought.

The good news is reserved for Easterners and Midwesterners: Your drought pain has eased notably, the forecasters say, and the summer promises above-average heat but more precipitation.

Go West for the bad news: A parched, pork chop-shaped region that extends from western Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, through Wyoming, most of the Rockies and the Southwest, and then on to the California coast, is expected to succumb to intensifying or persistent drought.

Conditions are expected to improve in the Great Plains because the wettest months are ahead, but forecasters caution that "this designation of improvement ... does not imply elimination of drought, just a possible easing of conditions."

They use variations of the word "easing" a lot in their forecast. "Ending" doesn't show up at all.

In fact, the year began with more than 60 percent of the continental U.S. in deep or significant drought, according to John Ewald, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Now, he very dryly reports, "47.66 percent of the Lower 48 is in moderate to extreme categories of drought."

Not to be left out, several other federal agencies cite the implications of the summer forecast for their niche domains. The National Interagency Fire Center says June looks primed for "significant" and "above normal" wildfire potential in much of California, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico. A chunk of south central Washington state is also in the red zone.

Some ranchers and farmers are expected to struggle with stubbornly dry skies and land. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says close to 40 percent of the winter wheat crop is in poor to very poor shape. This drought-stressed wheat grows — or doesn't grow — from Nebraska to Texas.

Rangeland and pasture for livestock is also in extraordinarily dry shape. It's the worst on record for this time of year, USDA says. And that's coming off last year's record bad year. This kind of record-keeping only goes back to 1995, so there's no way to compare it to the legendary Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

Back in the West, where melting winter snow fills reservoirs, lakes and rivers, and is critical for hydropower, the southern half of the region is expected to have significantly below-average stream flow. However, it will be near normal in the north.

It's especially desperate in central and western Texas, where lake levels this year are already lower than they were in 2011, which was "the worst single year in recorded history," the forecasters note.

The summer rainfall should be generally good, but the central and southern high plains — the flatlands closest to the Rockies — can expect below-average rain. So too, the Pacific Northwest. The Gulf coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle should get excess moisture.

But don't count on the summer rainfall forecast too much. "Summertime precipitation is more difficult to predict than springtime precipitation," the forecasters warn.

The dire Texas predictions come with understated advice that seems to warrant wider distribution: "The need for water conservation is being emphasized."

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