Drought-stricken lands need rain -- now

Even strong spring storms won't refill rivers and reservoirs, but they'd at least do a world of good for 2013's crops.

By Bruce Kennedy Feb 27, 2013 8:41AM

The dry Arkansas River bed in Garden City, Kansas ( Adam Reynolds/Corbis)It's hard to imagine, considering the recent winter storms that have caused floods, blizzards and other havoc across large parts of the Lower 48, that much of the country is still in the throes of an historic drought.


But a glance at the U.S. Drought Monitor reveals much of the nation's agricultural spine, from the Dakotas all the way down to south Texas, remains caught in the grip of what the Monitor classifies as severe, extreme or even exceptional drought conditions.


The drought started in the Southern Plains in the autumn of 2010 and soon spread across large parts of the country. As of last month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the drought was still affecting 55.8% of the contiguous U.S.

 Consumers across the country, even in areas blessed with good precipitation and ample water supply, will likely find their grocery bills further affected as the drought grinds on. That's especially true when it comes to beef and other meat prices. Sparse rains have dried up grazing and hay production across wide swaths of the country, causing cattle ranchers in particular to venture far and wide for available forage and supplemental feed, which in turn affects their bottom line.

"I mean, ranchers in the core of the drought have had to look all the way to the Carolinas or to northern Montana and North Dakota to bring in feed, and for a long period of time," says Nolan Doesken, the Colorado State Climatologist who is based at Colorado State University.


Along with livestock, many major crops -- including corn, wheat and soy beans -- have also been hit hard. Corn prices soared to record highs last summer, as the drought damaged crops and rising demand from both livestock and ethanol producers couldn't be met.


Doesken says while wheat producers squeezed out a "functional" yield last year, due to some early spring moisture in 2012, "things really went south" as the year progressed.


He notes the current winter wheat crop has been "very marginal" due to the dry conditions. But "wheat is remarkably resilient," he adds, "so it's been sitting and waiting and hoping for this late winter moisture."


So will 2013 see a repeat of the bone-dry conditions some areas endured last year?


Doesken is getting information from both public and private sector forecasters indicating some improvements in the weather -- but the drought is projected to continue in at least the southern and central areas of the current worst-hit region.


Substantial spring storms can be "really effective from an 'ag' point of view," he says. "Not necessarily filling the rivers and all the large reservoirs, but in terms of getting soil moisture back in condition so that crops can be in good shape."


"It only takes a well-timed, well-located storm track to really get things back in good condition in a few places," he says, "and again the storm track has gotten lively." Here's hoping.


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