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At Long Last, Great Plains Sees Some Drought Relief

After months of watching the skies and holding their breath, Nebraskans finally saw some meaningful drought relief, in the form of a mixed bag of precipitation, from thunderstorms to sleet, damaging hail, and heavy snow. The spring blizzard brought long-overdue drought relief to one of the hardest hit states by the historic national drought, which in many respects was more severe than the Dust Bowl era droughts of the 1930s, according to a federal report released on Thursday. 

Drought Monitor update as of April 11, 2013.
Credit: Drought.gov.

While the drought is far from over in the Great Plains, the precipitation that fell this week was welcome news for a region that has needed it the most. For example, in parts of South Dakota, up to 30 inches of snow fell through Wednesday, carrying more than an inch of liquid water equivalent that will help increase soil moisture.

Improvements in Nebraska compared to last week were remarkable. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the percentage of the state under “exceptional” drought, the worst category, shrank from 76 percent to 15 percent this week, the lowest level in months. Nebraska isn’t out of the woods yet, though, since 94 percent of the state is still under “extreme” drought. Still, this is a significant improvement for the state that has seen an all-time precipitation low over the past year. 

While Nebraska still has deep deficits in soil moisture, the precipitation from the past week is expected to replenish the topsoil enough to help support the planting and early emergence of some key crops in the High Plains. Further improvements to soil conditions are likely to be reflected in next week’s Drought Monitor, once rain and runoff from melted snow begin to permeate the deeper parts of the ground.

Drought Monitor maps showing the improvement in drought conditions in Nebraska between April 2 (left) and April 9 (right).
Click on the image to enlarge. Credit: Drought.gov.

The same storm system that brought wintry precipitation to Nebraska and South Dakota also affected Oklahoma, East Texas, and much of the Midwest, while separate storms over the West lessened some short-term drought concerns in California and Oregon. However, in the West, drought is still expected to be a serious concern going into the summer, where long-term rainfall deficits will likely lead to water shortages.

In the past week, the drought receded in Iowa, Illinois, southern Wisconsin and Minnesota, where the ground had begun to thaw. In the Upper Midwest, snow cover and frozen ground has made it difficult to measure soil conditions, but the National Weather Service is optimistic about drought recovery in Wisconsin and Minnesota over the next few weeks.

The footprint of the national drought shrank overall this week, from 51.92 percent to 50.82 percent of the continental U.S. under some form of drought conditions. The full extent of the precipitation that fell from the Plains to the Midwest this week was not reflected in the Thursday’s Drought Monitor, which only contains data through April 9. Additional drought improvements are expected to be seen in the Drought Monitor’s next update, which will be released next Thursday.

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