There are some in the ag world that worry a significant drought could be lurking. Over half the Lower 48 is looking at varying levels of drought stretching from the Pacific Northwest down to Texas and across the High Plains and Upper Midwest. As of late, there has been some much-needed moisture in many locations but many areas are also looking at a warmer and dryer than normal spring forecast that has the western half of the U.S. bracing for water cutbacks and wildfires, while farmers in the Midwest have the devastating 2012 drought still fresh in their memory.
There are many contributing factors to the overly dry conditions, including the La Niña weather pattern and what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls a “failed” 2020 summer monsoon season. The development and intensification of the drier conditions represents the most significant U.S. spring drought since 2013, which will impact approximately 74 million people, according to NOAA. The most recent national Drought Monitor showed almost 66% of the U.S. in abnormally dry conditions, which the Associated Press noted is the highest mid-March level recorded since 2002.
Looking at the Drought Monitor, the U.S. is pretty much cut in half with nearly the entire West in drought while most of the east is drought-free. The Southwest is in particularly bad shape with extreme to exceptional drought-the two highest levels on the scale-covering most of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, close to half of Colorado, and growing swaths of Texas, California, Washington, and Idaho. West Texas and the Four Corners region are considered the crux of the exceptional drought and you can see on a drought map how the dryness stretches out across surrounding areas from there.
There is little rain expected to fall across the west this spring, according to the Climate Prediction Center, which is very bad news for the region’s already low water supplies. Flows into the Colorado River as well as the reservoirs it feeds, such as Lake Mead, are below-normal levels and many water districts are already anticipating water allocation cutbacks. U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey expects those curbs in California “and perhaps other areas of the Southwest” for agriculture and other uses. Rippey singled out nut crops in California as a possible victim of the water cutbacks. He also notes that winter and spring wheat crops have already been hit hard by the western drought with 78% of the spring wheat production area in drought conditions.
The Southwest is forecast to remain the hardest hit region and not much hope for improvement is in the forecast. There are also concerns the drought could spread eastward into the corn belt if spring rains don’t sweep the Great Plains, where very little snow fell this past winter. Rippey warns that as much as one-third of winter wheat in the region could be damaged.
Some of the nation’s worst areas of drought and overly dry conditions can already be found across many of the biggest farm states, including southwest Kansas, and much of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and South Dakota. North Dakota is completely covered in drought, and mostly severe-to-extreme levels. The northern third of Michigan is in moderate drought and there is severe-to-extreme drought in the north eastern corner of Iowa.
In the Midwest, some folks want to compare the current situation to the drought of 2012, but meteorologists warn against drawing any conclusions just yet. It’s true that the drought is more widespread and more intense than it was at this time in 2012, and that warmer-than-average temperatures and low soil moisture could allow drought to expand and intensify. But, it’s also true that things could drastically improve in a very short amount of time.
“If this was July, we’d be hitting the panic button,” Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel told NPR. “But in the wintertime, it’s always kind of a little odd because droughts develop slowly and you know there’s not much going on out there.” Angel says his agency will likely know whether the Midwest is in for a bad drought by late spring. “May is a critical month because typically we get a lot of rain… So if you don’t get it in May, then that’s your last best chance of avoiding the drought,” he says.
A few larger rainfalls could bring areas back to normal by the time planting season comes around. That’s what happened in 2013, when the 2012 drought lingered into the new year, causing conditions even drier than now. But sudden, widespread precipitation changed things around, says Angell. There is still time, but as Nebraska state climatologist Martha Shulski said, the question is whether that will be enough to make up for large rain deficits in the High Plains from the past year. Of course, existing drought in the High Plains could also intensify if spring rains come up short.
The drought’s flip side is that the NOAA is forecasting only limited moderate flooding this spring. And for the first time in three years, no areas are given a greater than 50% chance of major flooding. Widespread minor to moderate flooding is predicted across the Coastal Plain of the Carolinas while minor to isolated moderate flooding is predicted for the Lower Missouri and Lower Ohio River basins. Overall, this flood year is not expected to be severe or as prolonged as the previous two years.
Like most anything these days, you can search and find whatever answer you looking for. If you want to read that ketchup gives you cancer, you can find that on the internet. If you want to read that global warming is the world’s biggest threat or that global warming is just a short-term cycle that will soon pass you can find either of those answers as well. Bottom line, depending on the weather forecaster and who you want to believe, we can read that we are going to have a massive drought, and in the click of a button read that weather is going to be near perfect for most of the major growing regions. For me personally, as someone who has had big wins and big losses betting on weather rallies, I find the setup heading into the summer very interesting. I would like to have seen a strengthening La Niña thinking it could create more chaos and uncertainty but I still quickly reference back to 2012 and how the year started off looking good then the spigots simply shut off. It seemed like that happened to some degree in a few parts of South America this past growing season. Long story short, I want to stick around and see more U.S. weather cards flipped over before I agree with the “all-clear” flag being waved. (Sources: Climate Prediction Center, Bloomberg, NPR, Associated Press)