U.S. drought eases slightly, Plains states still suffering

Thu Jan 10, 2013 12:47pm EST

By Carey Gillam
    Jan 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Plains remain tightly gripped by
severe drought, according to a report issued Thursday, and fears
mounted that another hot and dry year could lie ahead for the
key crop-growing and cattle-grazing region. 
    Good rains have fallen in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas over
the last few days, which should provide some improvement to dry
soils and shrunken rivers and streams. But generally the
worst-hit areas remain in sad shape, said Brian Fuchs,
climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the
University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 
    "We're still looking at significant precipitation deficits,"
Fuchs said. "We really haven't seen anything that has changed
the situation."
    There are no forecasts for significant moisture ahead, he
said. 
    "Where we're going to be April 1 I'm not sure, but looking
at the forecasts I'm thinking through much of the central Plains
that we're going to be talking about a lack of soil moisture and
a lack of moisture in rivers and streams," Fuchs said.
    Roughly 60.26 percent of the contiguous United States was in
at least "moderate" drought as of Jan. 8, a slight improvement
from 61.09 percent a week earlier, according to a "Drought
Monitor" report issued Thursday by a consortium of federal and
state climatology experts.
    But severe drought still blanketed 86.20 percent of the High
Plains, unchanged from the week before, and 60.25 percent of the
region was classified in extreme drought. The area in
exceptional drought, considered the worst level of dryness, was
steady at 26.99 percent.
 
    Fully 100 percent of the land area in Kansas, Nebraska and
Oklahoma was engulfed in severe drought or worse, according to
the Drought Monitor. 
    The drought is particularly hard on farmers and ranchers as
significant swaths of agricultural land are stricken by the dry
conditions. 
    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 62 percent
of U.S. wheat growing areas was suffering from drought as of
Jan. 8. That was unchanged from the prior week, according to
data compiled by Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist.
    Sixty-three percent of the nation's hay areas were hampered
by drought, improved slightly from 64 percent a week earlier.
And about 72 percent of the nation's domestic cattle inventory
was located in an area experiencing drought, a slight
improvement from the 73 percent seen the prior week, according
to Rippey.
    The last week marked the 27th consecutive week that drought
encompassed more than two-thirds of the domestic cattle
inventory and at least 60 percent of the domestic hay acreage,
he said.   
    The USDA on Wednesday declared 597 counties in 14 states as
natural disaster areas after they suffered from at least severe
drought for eight weeks in a row.
    More than half of them, 351 counties, were in the Wheat
Belt, running through the Plains from Texas to North Dakota. All
but one of Oklahoma's 77 counties were termed disaster areas
along with 88 of Kansas' 108 counties, 30 of Colorado's 64
counties and 157 of Texas' 254 counties.
    Crop condition ratings for winter wheat were the worst on
record in early December, the most recent figures available.
Some experts said up to a quarter of the crop will be abandoned
because of poor development.
    The year 2012 was the warmest on record for the contiguous
United States, beating the previous record by a full degree in
temperature, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
said on Tuesday. 
    Forecasts show the country will likely continue to see
above-normal temperatures in April, May and June. 
    

 (Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; editing by Jim
Marshall)
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