Drought persists in Nebraska

BY KRISTINA KNIGHT | OMAHA | February 28, 2001

But this winter has been a strange season across the High Plains, especially in Nebraska. After several seasons of above normal

temperatures and below normal snow and rainfall, farmers and ranchers were praying for a very moist winter.

So far, their prayers have been answered.

The average precipitation total in Nebraska is 30 inches. This winter nearly 27 inches of snow and rain have fallen. And the season isn't over yet. Some are heralding this as the end of the drought. But according to the experts, they are wrong.

"All weĠre really seeing is winters that are trending back toward normal for this part of the country," said Dave Wert the National Weather Service Chief Meteorologist at Lee Bird Field, Nebraska. "For the past six to 10 years, weĠve been very warm on average and our snowfalls have been well below average. Sometimes as little as half the amount we should see."

This year, as according to the precipitation trends, the state is almost back to normal. But if you look at the liquid equivalent of the snowfall, Western Nebraska is still a little below normal.

"Anyone who takes a post-hole digger and digs down about eight or ten inches is going to end up hitting very, very dry soil. And this deep

soil moisture profile is so imperative to have as we get into the warm season," said Wert.

According to officials, the deep soil moisture profile is what producers live on because if the deep soil is dry as they head into summer, crop roots will tap this moisture reserve. If there is no deep soil moisture, the crops will quickly dry out and die.

But the moisture totals do bring good news.

According to Wert, this trend back to normal is a good sign for producers.

"The homeowner who just wants to grow a garden is only interested in the top three or four inches of ground moisture, which is very good.

Anyone who looks outside now sees a lot of standing water, a lot of mud pools."

Unfortunately for producers, much of that moisture is going to evaporate before the ground thaws. That means the deep soil moisture that is so crucial as producers head into June, July and August won't be there.

Wert says the biggest problem this winter has been the combination of cold temperatures and the precipitation count. The precipitation

totals can fool people, he says because even though 27 inches of moisture has come down, most of that moisture has not had the chance to

sink into the deeper soil levels because the ground is frozen. Instead, the moisture simply runs off into ditches or evaporates.

"It will only take a few weeks of above normal temperatures and low relative humidity in the spring to thoroughly erode away the near soil

moisture that we have."

So what do producers need from Mother Nature this spring? Several "significant precipitation events," according to Wert.

"WeĠre still showing deficits," he said, "and it will take another good couple of major winter storms to deposit snow. And it needs to happen

after the thaw, in the later part of March, or we could quickly go back into a drought situation."

Wert says he would like to see snow storms in March, because the snow will melt slowly and allow the moisture to seep down into the lower soil levels. But even after the snowfall, producers need a high precipitation count in the spring rains. And odds are that is exactly what will happen.

"WeĠre seeing a trend back to normal. There are some good things to look at, but producers need to be prepared for the forecasts to

change and for our area not to get as much precipitation as we need."

So what is a farmer or rancher to do? Plan ahead and plan for the worst, according to the experts.

Tilling the land early tends to dry out areas, so Wert says if a producer is not in an irrigated area, it is best to not till the ground at all, or at least wait until the last minute.

And if producers can choose their crops, the best bet is to plant a more drought-tolerant or neutral crop.

"Many producers last year, knowing from the forecasts we made that we were headed into a drought year, switched to a more drought hardy variety of crop that could take the dry weather better."

Ideally, producers need to see a couple of late snow storms and heavy spring rains. "Timing is everything in this," West said. "We want to

have it after the thaw has begun so we can see moisture penetration. WeĠd like to see it in the form of snow because snow will melt slower

and will have a better chance of getting into the ground rather than running off. And then, when we get even later in the year, maybe in

April and May, we want to see showery long-term precipitation, rather than a deluge that will fall in one or two hours where 80 to 90

percent of the precipitation will run off."

Cooler temperatures would also help, according to Wert. But it is a fine line and easy to cross. Cooler temperatures would cut down on

water evaporation; however, if the spring and summer are excessively cool and moist there will be an increase in molds and fungus that

attack the crops.

"The long-range forecast is for up to normal or slightly above normal precipitation, but it does not look like we will be excessively above

normal," Wert said. "But we need more rather than less to combat and break the dry-cycle that we've had."

And donĠt think just because many Midwest states are back to normal this year that that means the drought is over. According to the

National Weather Service, it takes many years for a region to get into a drought situation. Therefore, it will take several years to get out of a drought situation.

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