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Drought to Floods For Some; Dryness Holds On To West

As the Midwest has lurched from severe drought conditions in late 2012 to record flooding during the past two weeks, the focus of the drought has shifted west, with drought conditions continuing to intensify in the West and Southwest, where many states are facing long-term rainfall deficits from up to three years of unusually dry conditions.

U.S. Drought Monitor as of April 23, 2013, showing a sharp cutoff to the drought from about Minnesota south to Texas.
Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor.

According to the latest edition of the U.S. Drought Monitor, released on Thursday, an unusually cold and stormy weather pattern across the U.S. has helped ease drought conditions from the eastern Rockies to the upper Midwest. However, this same weather pattern has intensified the drought in much of the West.

“Improbably, flooding has now replaced drought as the Midwest’s greatest imminent concern,” said Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist, in a press release. “In fact, from April 20 to 23, the Mississippi River rose to one of its five highest levels on record from just south of Moline, Ill., to just north of St. Louis, Mo.”

Numerous snowfall records were broken during the month of April, including in Boulder, Colo. and Duluth, Minn., which had their snowiest months of any month on record, while many other locations had their snowiest April on record. Meltwater from the snowpack should help ease drought conditions, although it remains to be seen how much relief actually takes place, since a sudden onset of mild spring weather could lead to a rapid melt, which would not allow the water to penetrate deep into the soil.

According to the Drought Monitor, the total percentage of the continental U.S. under drought conditions fell incrementally this week, from 47.82 percent to 47.34 percent. That is well below the peak of the drought on Sept. 25, 2012, when the percentage of the lower 48 states in moderate drought or worse was 65.45 percent. 

Reflecting the intensification of the drought in the Southwest, areas under “extreme” or “exceptional” drought — the two worst categories — expanded slightly this week, reflecting the fact that this spring has positioned the West and Southwest for a dry summer.

Currently, the eastern border of the drought begins along a a north-south line from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Commander Col. Christopher Hall (left) of the Army Corps of Engineers visits levee districts along the Illinois River as the St. Louis District flood fight teams support local efforts to brace for rising river levels on April 21, 2013.
Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In Texas, drought intensified from the western part of the state into New Mexico and up into the Oklahoma Panhandle during the past week. Some rains fell over the northern and eastern parts of the state, and provided relief. But ongoing drought in Texas has taken its toll. Precipitation deficits over the past six months have fallen as low as 40 percent of average. As a result, the winter wheat drop has taken a big hit: the percentage of the crop rated poor to very poor stood at 36 percent in Oklahoma, and 60 percent in Texas.

Patches of severe drought expanded in southern Colorado, Arizona, and California’s San Joaquin Valley, while extreme drought conditions expanded in New Mexico to consume more than 77 percent of the state. In Arizona and New Mexico, six-month precipitation totals are extremely low, and are close to 30 percent of average in some places.

Some drought relief came to adjacent parts of the plains — eastern Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Improvements were also seen in selected parts of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Wyoming, and in Florida, where rains eased some of the dryness that had developed over the southern peninsula. However, drought is still an ongoing problem in the central and northern parts of the state.

The Climate Prediction Center’s 6-10 day forecast for April 30 to May 4 calls for elevated temperatures and below-average rainfall for the West and parts of the Plains, which means things are likely to get even worse in the coming days. Long-range climate outlooks for the summer months show a greater-than-average likelihood of warm and dry conditions across the West, which is bad news for firefighters preparing for another damaging wildfire season.

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