Drought forecast issued

Parts of the country are praying for precipitation.


"As population grows, there is an increasing possibility of drought independent of what the weather is like."

—David Miskus

While heavy snow and rain is falling in some parts of the U.S., other parts of the country are praying for precipitation.

Wyoming State Climatologist Jan Curtis worries when he looks at the two major reservoirs in the northeastern part of the state. "That's one of the biggest concerns in the state right now," he explained. "Those two reservoirs are down to near record lows, and if we don't get good snow-pack this winter, they'll continue to go down."

Sections of the west are facing their fourth and fifth years of drought, and the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does not bode well for the upcoming spring. Significant sections of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Nebraska and the Dakotas will see persisting drought conditions. Other areas across the west will only see limited improvement.

Much of Wyoming is in a D-3 or D-4 state of drought - the two most severe intensities on a National Drought Mitigation Center scale. The NDMC is a project of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and releases the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor in cooperation with NOAA and scientists from across the country.

Curtis, who works closely with the Wyoming Governor's Drought Task Force as well as with the state office of emergency management, said a recent analysis by the state estimates that this lasting drought has taken more than a $600 million toll on the agriculture industry. He noted that that number does not include the loss affecting the tourism industry.

The two reservoirs Curtis is worried about not only serve communities in that area, he added, but nearby farmers in Nebraska rely on them for irrigation. "The only way we really survive is from mountain snow run-off in the spring," he said. "If we don't get that, we'll be hard-pressed to end this drought anytime soon."

Population is an issue in some of the affected regions as well. "(Drought) is a big issue when it comes to allocating water resources," said David Miskus, head meteorologist for the CPC's Joint Agricultural Weather Facility. "The 1970s, '80s, and '90s may have been a wet cycle for the west - but then again, there are more people competing for water now."

Curtis also linked droughts to cycles - both natural and man-made. "They can be caused by over-population at some points. As population grows, there is an increasing possibility of drought independent of what the weather is like."

With wildfires scorching more and more acres across the west every year, continuing dry conditions have forest management officials just as nervous. Roy Kaiser, a Montana water supply specialist with Natural Resources Conservation Services, said dry vegetation is ripe for fire.

"Our older trees are being attacked by (insects), and that can help trigger an extreme fire season," explained Kaiser. "Water stored in snow-pack is like money in the bank - yet there aren't any signs that we'll be getting out of this drought any time soon. We just haven't had the moisture to keep our streams producing what they need."

The best-case scenario that Curtis sees is these regions escaping drought in five years or so. This is due to the drought cycles he and other climatologists study, but also rely heavily on moving out of average weather patterns. "If we're in a five-year drought, the best we can hope is to get out of it in five years with above-average moisture. We certainly don't need the setbacks of an extremely hot summer."

And during these dry times, he added, the best mitigation techniques take a priority. Using a team of more than 2,000 observers across Wyoming, Curtis helps tally daily precipitation reports. With these, he is able to help monitor the drought situation, advise farmers and other state officials, and add input to regional and national drought outlooks and monitors.

"The precipitation that falls from March through May really affects ranching. Around 40 acres of range supports one cow, so you can imagine the need. In the coming months I get really serious about monitoring precipitation and the information from all these observers."

Nationally, the data Curtis gathers is a valuable asset to Miskus and the other meteorologists who compile and produce the drought outlooks and monitors.

And there's one bright point to the CPC's Seasonal Drought Outlook: Less dry weather is forecasted for the southwest's Four Corners. Curtis and Kaiser are hoping their states will get that kind of good news at some point as well.

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More links on Drought


Related Links:

U.S. Drought Monitor

Climate Prediction Center Drought Assessment

National Drought Mitigation Center


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