Cool, wet spring may ease western Plains drought
By Nora Hertel
PIERRE (AP) — A spring forecast of above-average rainfall in parts of the Plains region is raising hopes for a break in drought conditions plaguing much of the area.
"It looks pretty good for conditions to improve into the early summer," said Sioux Falls-based National Weather Service hydrologist Mike Gillispie about predictions for precipitation in parts of Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., also expects extra precipitation through April in the central and northern Plains.
But while some drought relief might be on the way, representatives from the agriculture industry and municipal water departments are still wary.
Nathan Fields, with National Corn Growers Association, said the 2012 drought showed how quickly it can set in and damage crop production.
Parts of eastern South Dakota are abnormally dry and the stretch from southern Minnesota and Iowa through Nebraska is in moderate drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. North Dakota , meanwhile, largely has escaped drought conditions.
Conditions worsen farther south, with parts of Texas and Oklahoma suffering through a severe and persistent drought.
Fields, the association's director of biotechnology and economic analysis, said the weather "is the biggest variable that nobody really has control over."
He said once a drought settles in, all farmers can do is hope they selected a drought-resistant seed.
Jason Kontz farms corn, soybeans and alfalfa on 2,500 acres near Coleman.
In dry times, Kontz said, "we just plant and hope for rain or try and put the seed deep enough to reach moisture in the soil."
Kontz said conditions in the southeastern corner of the state are not too bad currently but it feels dry.
"I think it's going to be dry this spring," the 35-year-old farmer said. "It was dry last fall, and in this area of the world, we didn't get a lot of snow."
Jerry Obrist, chief engineer for water works in Lincoln, Neb., has been monitoring drought conditions as well. In Nebraska, exceptionally dry weather affects aquifers that provide water for communities across the state.
Drought severity varies across Nebraska, and Obrist said precipitation has been below average this year.
"South Dakota's been getting all our rain and snow," he said with a laugh. He is hoping for a wet spring. But if the city's water resources become pressed, officials will restrict outside water use, Obrist said.
Al Dutcher, Nebraska's state climatologist, said drought recovery can take years, so the region will need good rain for more than a few months in order to recover from the 2012 drought.
He said it could take several years for some areas of Texas and Kansas to recover from severe drought.
Dutcher and other scientists said temperature is also a factor this spring for farmers. Temperatures are expected to remain below average, meaning there's less fuel for the thunderstorms that bring precipitation.
Gillispie said cooler temperatures might also shorten the growing season in the northern Plains.
However, Gillispie said, "if we can get this wet spring, we should be in good shape."