Drought will linger in California, south U.S. plains into spring

by Andrew Owen and Drew Lerner
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California and portions of the southern Plains are still in a categorical severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. These areas need excessive precipitation to break the drought and restore water supply to normal.

Portions of the southern Plains have dealt with drought conditions for five years, although last year was a better year. California has been in a severe drought for the past two years, although some would say California has been drier for a much longer period of time. There will be periods of relief from the excessive dryness for both areas in the coming weeks, but not enough to fully break the drought.

The southern Plains may do better in getting significant rain than California, but the situation will be worth watching. In the meantime, the northern U.S. Plains and Canada’s Prairies are on the World Weather, Inc. watch list for dryness later this year. Recent weeks of poor precipitation in the lower Midwest, Delta and southeastern states will be eased this spring, but another few weeks of the same lie ahead.

U.S. drought conditions recently were quite similar to those noted by the Drought Monitor one year ago. Dryness in the central U.S. is not nearly as significant as that of 2013, and of course at this time in 2012 drought was not even thought about for the growing season that year. As of Feb. 3, 2015, California, the Pacific Northwest and portions of the southern Plains were still experiencing similar drought conditions to those of a year ago. Dryness this year already has reached a minor drought classification in the Upper Midwest and northeastern Plains (Minnesota and the Dakotas). Last year at this time, dryness in the western Corn Belt was mostly in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, southern Minnesota and Nebraska, and relief came quickly in the early spring. The central and southern Plains were dry periodically throughout all of last year, but rain was timelier than that of the two previous years.

Significant rain fell in northern California during the second weekend of this month, bolstering topsoil moisture and seriously easing dryness that had been prevailing since December in some areas. Rain totals of 1 to 4 inches were common in the Sacramento Valley, and some significant snow accumulated in the higher elevated areas. Despite the impressive rain event, northern California was still reporting 50% to 90% of normal precipitation for the past 30 days while southern California (where little rain fell during the same weekend) was sporting deficits of more than half of normal. Some areas in the southern San Joaquin Valley in the southernmost parts of the state near San Diego and in the Imperial Valley were reporting less than 25% of normal precipitation.

In the most recent 60- and 90-day periods, portions of northern California have received near normal rainfall. The San Joaquin Valley and areas to the south into Baja California and parts of western and northern Arizona have been much drier with 50% to 75% of normal rainfall and some areas less than 25%.

Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is much lower than normal, and reservoir levels are below average as well. These tendencies remain even though late November and December snow was favorably abundant across the region. Warm weather in recent weeks induced some snow melt from the lower elevated areas, and that actually reduces the runoff potential for later this spring and summer, although some increase in water levels already has occurred from the melting snow.

In the meantime, the U.S. Plains and portions of the western Corn Belt saw a wide variety of precipitation during the past 30 days. Many areas in Iowa, Nebraska, northeastern Kansas, northern Missouri and northern Illinois received near to above normal precipitation due to the surprisingly strong winter storm system in the first days of February while portions of Oklahoma, southern Kansas, South Dakota, northern Minnesota and Wisconsin were drier than normal. Soil moisture is generally short across the western and northern Plains even with the areas of above average precipitation noted recently. The region is quite often in need of significant moisture, and that need is certainly prevalent this year.

Spring runoff potentials in the northern Plains and Canada’s Prairies will be well below average this year due to restricted snow cover, although there is still time for a notable change.

This year’s combined influence of El Niño-like conditions and a long-term prevailing weather pattern have restricted precipitation in the Delta, lower Midwest and portions of the interior southeastern states. These areas were all notably drier biased in the past 30 days, and parts of the lower Midwest, northern Delta and Tennessee River Basin were experiencing similar conditions back as many as 90 days ago. However, cold weather conserved much of the moisture that fell because of low evaporation rates. The moisture situation in the lower Midwest, Delta and southeastern states is still rated favorably, despite the past few weeks of drier biased conditions. However, that will not stop some of the chatter out there in cyberspace about it being unusually dry.

Portions of the southern Plains have generally been in a drought for more than five years, although the situation is not nearly as severe as that of recent past years. Portions of West Texas received enough precipitation in the past few weeks to ease dryness, but drought conditions are still prevailing in the region’s water supply and river and stream flow. The Texas Panhandle, western Oklahoma, and immediate neighboring areas are still in a severe drought, and there is still some significant dryness affecting parts of Kansas and southeastern Colorado, though the ground is not as dry as areas further to the south. The Drought Monitor suggests dryness in a part of the Texas Panhandle may be worse today than it was a year ago. It is certainly no better.

Much like California, the Pacific Northwest also has suffered from lower-than-normal precipitation and warm weather so far this winter. Snowpack had been significantly less than usual earlier this season, but a succession of storms now affecting the region recently has made a difference. The Pacific Northwest has not been as dry as California this winter, but additional moisture would be welcome.

Another area starting to show drought conditions is in the northern Plains. Outside of Montana, the remainder of the northern Plains and a part of the upper Midwest received well below average precipitation during the past two to three months. Snow cover is limited in quite a few areas, and there are some pockets reporting little to no snow, which is unusual for this time of year.

Two storms produced timely precipitation in Texas and Oklahoma in recent weeks. The precipitation helped reduce “some” of the dryness, but there is still a long-term drought playing out in the region. The Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma are among the driest areas, but there is need for rain in many other areas in the southern Plains. The Blacklands, Coastal Bend and South Texas received timely rain in recent weeks and are in mostly good shape. There will be timely precipitation in the southern Plains in the balance of February and March to help further reduce drought conditions. Expected rainfall will not likely be enough to end drought, but crops in the region will have potential to perform more normally in this coming season relative to those of recent past years. April will be the best month of rain for the region and a significant improvement in soil moisture may occur at that time.

California also will receive timely precipitation in the coming weeks that should help reduce some of the dryness and bolster snowpack. However, like in the southern Plains, there will not be enough precipitation to break the drought. Temperatures will be warm enough to melt a significant amount of snowpack at times, and reservoir levels will remain below or well below average for an extended period of time. Some grain, fruit and vegetable yield reductions are expected again this year due to the lack of available moisture, but the situation will not be worse than that of 2014. California should receive more frequent precipitation in late February and March with the frequency and significance of storm systems somewhat similar to that of December, and soil moisture and water reservoir levels are expected to increase more favorably, but stay short of normal water levels and runoff potentials. Much drier conditions will occur after that for a while.

The lower Midwest, Delta and southeastern states are not expected to have significant problems with dryness this spring, despite recent dryness. The region will continue to see less frequent and less significant precipitation events relative to normal for a while longer especially in the balance of February and early March. However, a more active southern branch of the jet stream is expected in March, April and early May to bolster soil moisture in most of the dry areas ending concern over dryness. However, that is not a very good time of the year for a wet bias to evolve. Delays in the planting of spring crops may result as the region moistens up. There is potential for some areas to begin planting early because of nearly ideal soil conditions leading into the planting season, but once the rain pattern begins it may be around for a while. Those producers who plant early may be glad they did, despite some yellowing of the crop for a while. Others may not get into their fields for a while raising concern about later-than-usual planting and yield reductions.
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