Scientists expect nation’s drought to persist this year

02/21/2013 4:55 PM

02/04/2014 6:53 PM

More than half of the United States remains in drought, although things have improved from the record-breaking conditions last year that killed 123 and added up to at least $35 billion in economic losses, including crop failure and livestock deaths.

At one point in September 2012, two-thirds of the continental United States was suffering from record-breaking drought conditions so severe they restricted navigation on portions of the Mississippi River. About 55 percent of the nation remains in drought conditions now, though the outlook for 2013 isn’t quite as grim as last year.

But drought is expected to persist in the Great Plains and part of the West and could extend into more of California and Florida, said forecasters with the National Integrated Drought Information System as they released a seasonal drought outlook for the nation. They met Thursday in Washington to release climate and water supply forecasts, along with the national wildfire outlook.

Drought, although slower-building and not as dramatic as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake, often ranks just as high in terms of economic losses. It has far-reaching consequences on water supplies, the severity of forest fires, the amount of snow available to skiers, and on crop yields and food prices. President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address cited severe droughts as one of the reasons for acting on climate change.

Texas faces particularly tough conditions – emergency managers there are considering how to transport water to municipal systems that might fail, one speaker said Thursday. They fear they’ll see a second year of farmers abandoning cotton crops in Texas, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There are "very poor" conditions in the snowpack that feeds river systems in the Great Plains, said Mike Strobel of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Reservoirs in Colorado already are low because of last year’s drought.

"Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming . . . that’s where we really need to see some of the snowpack, because that’s where we derive the water that goes into the Platte, the Arkansas and other rivers," Strobel said.

There’s good news too, though. Navigation problems on the Mississippi are expected to ease this year. And there’s what Rippey described as a "wonderful snowstorm" happening this week in the central Plains states. Kansas City, Mo., for example, recorded nearly a foot of snow in some areas by mid-afternoon Thursday.

"That does often happen when we hold drought meetings," Rippey joked. "We should hold them more often."

Government weather forecasters have a new worry, though: sequestration. That’s the $85 billion in mandatory federal spending cuts set to take effect March 1 if Congress and the president can’t agree on an alternative plan to rein in deficits.

Drought monitoring depends on thousands of tiny, independent pieces scattered across the country, including upward of 7,000 stream gauges that monitor water levels and flow in waterways nationwide. They’re paid for by a patchwork of hundreds of different federal, local and state agencies. Already, some states have cut back, Strobel said.

Colorado curtailed some manual inspections that required traveling to remote sites via helicopter, Strobel said. Montana also abandoned the manual monitoring of 39 snowpack measurement sites, he said. Scientists are worried about the accuracy of models that use many decades worth of data to predict future patterns. Some of the places have been monitored for more than a century, he said.

"But you have to look at what you can live without," he said.

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