After a warm, dry March, new data show much of the U.S. West is facing conditions of moderate drought or worse, with water-supply worries expanding for wheat, corn and soybean growers.
DES MOINES, Iowa — Drought conditions expanded last month amid U.S. weather that was warmer and drier across much of the West.
Weekly data released by the National Drought Mitigation Center show moderate drought or worse covered 36.8 percent of the U.S. as of late last week, up nearly 5 percentage points from the previous week but slightly below last year’s levels.
Over the past decade, the figure has ranged from 9 percent in 2010 to nearly 52 percent during the devastating drought of 2013.
Data show that drought conditions now cover 22 percent of the land used in U.S. corn production and 18 percent of soybean cropland. That’s a spike compared with early March, when the drought had reached only 6 percent of corn-growing areas and 5 percent of the soybean region.
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Winter wheat is suffering. Drought now covers 42 percent of the area where the crop is grown, up from 33 percent in early March. During the winter and early spring months, the condition of the wheat crop already had declined sharply in Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who wrote the latest drought-monitor report.
But spring rain in the agricultural Midwest could improve conditions for farmers preparing for the corn and soybean growing season.
Some areas of Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky saw rain last week, and additional rain could move across the same area this week. But abnormally dry areas are beginning to reflect the lack of moisture from last fall and recent months, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the center.
That’s a change from the last few years, when too much rain left many farmers in parts of Iowa and Illinois unable to plant or work in their fields.
“The dryness is kind of a double-edged sword,” Fuchs said. “They can get into the fields without fighting the wetness that traditionally for the last few years has been hampering some producers. But by the same token, dryness could start causing a problem down the road.”
Kansas corn farmer Clay Scott said that this year he hasn’t seen the dirt storms he experienced in recent years. But he noted that the area is entering its fourth growing season of drought.
“There is a desperate need for rain right now,” he said. “If we catch a good rain here shortly, we’ll have a nice wheat crop here in southwest Kansas compared to the last couple of years.”
Drought developed during March in much of central and northern Wisconsin, with 55 percent of the state in moderate drought. Nebraska, which reported no drought four weeks ago, is now experiencing moderate drought over 22 percent of its land.
A substantial jump also was reported in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. In Colorado, coverage of severe drought jumped to 40 percent from 12 percent.
And Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a drought emergency in three more counties, bringing the total to five. The report puts 45 percent of Oregon in severe drought, with its four most southeastern counties in extreme drought.
Californians can attest to the impact as their state enters the fourth year of widespread drought. Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the first-ever mandatory reductions in water usage as drought now covers more than 98 percent of the state. Two-thirds of California is in extreme to exceptional drought.
The drought monitor measures drought in five levels ranging from abnormally dry, which is short-term dryness that can hinder crop development, to exceptional drought, which causes widespread crop loss and water shortages in reservoirs and streams leading to water emergencies.
In Washington state, the water-supply forecast for the Yakima River basin got worse in March.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that holders of junior water rights will likely get just 60 percent of their normal water. That’s significantly worse than the March estimate of 73 percent of normal.
The shortfall is caused by the warm, wet winter that left little snow in the Cascade Range.
Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency for Central Washington because of a snowpack that is less than 20 percent of normal for this time of year.