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   from the issue of February 5, 2004

Despite snow, drought still a concern


Drought continues to be a concern for agriculture, recreation, wildlife and water supplies, but the jury’s still out on how serious the problem will be this year, the University of Nebraska state climatologist said.

Moderate to extreme drought conditions cover most of Nebraska, and long-term forecasts don’t provide clear precipitation trends for the Midwest, said Al Dutcher, state climatologist in the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

One thing’s for sure, though: Water supplies still will be limited, he said.

“Even if we get ample spring rains to fill up the soil (moisture) profile, given drought patterns the last few years, even a full soil profile won’t help,” he said. “It took us several years to get into a drought, and it will take several years to undo these problems.”

Last week’s snow storm should improve moisture conditions in areas that received more than 8 inches of snow, Dutcher said. However, it won’t help western parts of the state, which saw little if any snowfall.

“There was ample snow and wind that deposited snow into low-lying areas,” Dutcher said. “This is the kind of activity that we like to see. If we would get two to three more snow storms like this out west, we could see some easing of the conditions.”

Dutcher said southeastern Nebraska received good moisture last fall, which gives it a good chance of getting a full soil moisture profile before planting season begins.

“However, these areas stand a good chance of being overwhelmed by the broad area of drought to our west if the weather patterns of the last few years appear once again during the growing season,” he said. “Last year, northeastern Nebraska had a good soil profile, but got hammered as summer rains stopped. When Mother Nature shuts off the water, it doesn’t take long to use it up.”

Areas of drought continue to expand around the country, particularly in states to the south and west of Nebraska, said Mike Hayes, an IANR climate impacts specialist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the university.

“In the past couple of years, we’ve really noticed how big a factor it is locally when the southwestern United States becomes very dry,” Hayes said. “This apparently can have a big impact on the Central Plains.”

This year also will show how dependent Nebraska is on other states for its water supplies, he said.

The mountain snow pack in Colorado and Wyoming, which is important for Nebraska’s river flow, has been falling behind, he said.

“Things started out great, but now snow pack has fallen to about normal to slightly below normal,” Hayes said. “There is still a lot of winter left, though. It could go back up, but it also could fall behind.”

Even if snow pack in the mountains is good, water systems and reservoirs are so stressed, it’s unclear how much water will be available to Nebraska.

Lake McConaughy near Ogallala will have to go up more than 15 feet just to reach its maximum level for last year, Hayes said.

“At the current rate it’s filling, that’s not going to happen, unless something happens snow-pack-wise or we get heavy rains during the spring and summer,” he said.

Western Nebraska has received less than an inch of moisture since Oct. 1, Dutcher said.

Harlan Reservoir near Alma also is in an extremely bad situation. Water deliveries are likely to be significantly impacted, and it’s possible no water will be delivered unless significant improvements in the Republican River stream flows develop during the next three to four months.

“You’re looking at 26,000 acres of farmland without water if Harlan shuts down,” Dutcher said. “That means yield losses could potentially total 4 million bushels if corn isn’t irrigated and dryland crops fail.”

It’s even worse for smaller reservoirs in southwestern Nebraska, he said.

Also, record low water levels on the Missouri River may soon start affecting barge travel from Kansas City to Omaha and Sioux City, Hayes said.

For information

More drought information, including the U.S. Drought Monitor that charts drought nationally, is available on the National Drought Mitigation Center’s Web site at or visit the IANR drought Web page at



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