Drought improves in Texas, worsens in western U.S.
* Western U.S. sees drought spread as Texas improves
* Northern Plains eyed with concern, moisture needed
By Carey Gillam
Feb 23(Reuters) - Drought kept a tight grip on large sections of the United States, but recent rains put some of the most hard-hit areas on the road to recovery, a report from climate experts said Thursday.
Recent rains and snowfall boosted soil moisture and started to replenish ground water supplies in key areas of the U.S. South that suffered historic drought in 2011.
"It's been pretty darn wet, the last 90 days ... we've seen improvements," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska's Drought Mitigation Center. "It's been very unexpected but very welcomed."
Moisture has been especially critical for Texas, and the state's level of drought saw notable improvement over the last week, according to the Drought Monitor, a weekly report on drought throughout the country compiled by U.S. climate experts.
In Texas, the levels of exceptional drought - the highest measurement - fell to 13.93 percent of the state from 20.41 percent in the latest reporting week, ended Feb. 21. Severe or worse drought levels dropped to 67.48 percent from 76.46 percent.
Texas is trying to emerge from a year that saw records shattered for both high heat and lack of moisture. The one-year period between Nov. 1, 2010, and Oct. 31, 2011, was the driest in the state's history, and the three-month period of June to August in Texas was the hottest ever reported by any state in U.S. history, according to state and federal climate experts.
Conditions grew more dire in the west, however. California saw moderate or worse drought rise to 67.76 percent of the state, up from 59.06 percent in the latest reporting week.
Nevada had 81.80 percent of the state rated in moderate or worse drought, up from 81.59 percent the prior week. Arizona saw moderate drought rise to 86.92 percent of the state from 80.56 percent. And New Mexico also saw drought spread.
Another area of concern is the upper Midwest and Northern Plains, where spring planting of corn, soybeans and wheat is set to start soon. Soil moisture levels need boosting to ensure good production potential for the key U.S. crops.
Iowa, the largest U.S. corn and soybean producting state has about 20 percent of the state currently suffering moderate drought.
As temperatures continue to warm with the end of winter, precipitation will be needed.
"Spring is right on the doorstop, and the temperatures are going to ramp back up," said Svoboda. (Reporting by Carey Gillam)