Kansas drought isn't easing up; forecasters optimistic for later in the year

Wichita EagleJanuary 8, 2013 

The intense drought that crippled much of the growing season for numerous states in the nation’s mid-section in 2012 is showing little sign of easing early in the new year, weather officials say.

But some Kansas forecasters retain hope that enough moisture will fall to provide for a decent winter wheat crop in 2013.

“I’m reasonably optimistic,” AccuWeather vice president Mike Smith said in an e-mail response to questions from The Eagle.

Long-range forecasts offered by computer models suggest precipitation levels will be normal from February through June, he said.

“That wouldn’t break the drought but it would give enough moisture for the wheat crop,” Smith said.

Smith said the main reason for his optimism is that the high-pressure dome that camped out over the heartland for most of 2012 shifted west – well out into the Pacific Ocean – in early December and shows no signs of moving.

“That is in nearly an ideal position to guide storms into our region,” he said.

Wichita and eastern Kansas need the moisture.

Salina’s rainfall for 2012 was more than 13 inches below normal and Chanute’s was nearly 10 inches. Wichita’s total was almost 8 inches below normal.

Since last summer, precipitation across the region is running 25 to 50 percent of normal, according to a drought information statement issued late last week by the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Palmer Drought Severity Index for Dec. 29, 6 to 9 inches of rain is needed in the eastern third of Kansas to break the drought. Most of the rest of the state needs 3 to 6 inches.

“This precipitation can not come all at once, but needs to arrive in staggered intervals in order to minimize runoff and maximize ground absorption,” the drought information statement said. “This will be tough to accomplish during the winter months due to historically less precipitation during the winter, and will likely need to wait until spring at the earliest.”

Indeed, the Climate Prediction Center forecasts the drought to persist in most of the western half of the U.S. through at least the end of March – from eastern Iowa and central Missouri west to the Pacific Ocean in southern and central California and the Nevada state line in northern California.

A wet winter and early spring – along with a growing season that ran two to three weeks ahead of normal – helped Kansas wheat farmers avoid the worst of the drought that began to set in by early summer, leading to a 38 percent increase in total bushels over the year before, according to Kansas Agricultural Statistics.

But warm temperatures and dry weather in the nation’s wheat belt had the current winter wheat crop in its worst shape in decades in late November, according to government officials.

While there have been spotty rains around Kansas in the fall and early winter, substantial deficits remain.

Water levels at most of the state’s reservoirs are down. Cheney Reservoir, for example, has less than 60 percent of its normal water capacity. Most of Cheney’s boat ramps are surrounded by land.

Soil moisture levels in early January ranged from 8 inches in eastern Kansas to 12 inches in western parts of the state, according to the Climate Prediction Center. That is 4 to 6 inches below seasonal normals.

The center projects below normal precipitation across the High Plains for much of the growing season, based on current weather patterns, said Jeff Hutton, warning coordination meteorologist for the Dodge City branch of the weather service.

“Precipitation on average will ‘probably’ be below normal again this year but perhaps not that far below normal,” Hutton said in an e-mail response to questions. “That being said, it will take several months in a row of above normal precipitation to diminish the severity of the ongoing drought.”

A snowy December – by western Kansas standards, at least – is a decent first step. Dodge City recorded 6.9 inches of snow, which is 2.8 inches above normal for December.

Contributing: Associated Press, Bloomberg News

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