Climatologist: State's nearly two-year drought almost over; winter will be critical

2013-10-23T15:45:00Z 2013-10-23T19:37:10Z Climatologist: State's nearly two-year drought almost over; winter will be criticalBy ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Timely rains, periods of cool weather and flooding in Colorado helped pull most of Nebraska out of a nearly two-year drought.

"Things are getting better," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

A year ago, about 95 percent of the state was in extreme drought, compared to about 5 percent as of last week.

The state’s southwest corner is the only area still in bad shape, Svoboda told the Climate Assessment Response Committee on Wednesday.

"Really, for the nation as a whole we've seen quite a bit of improvement rather than deterioration," he said.

But while the situation has improved significantly, another dry winter like last year’s could put the state back into a severe or worse drought.

"Ideally, we need to see a good normal to above-normal snowfall to sustain that recovery for Nebraska's water supply," Svoboda said.

Accuweather's long-range forecast predicts above-normal snowfall for the Rockies and northern Plains, including parts of Nebraska, this winter, but other weather experts aren't so sure.

The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center said drought conditions could persist or intensify over much of western and central Nebraska through Jan. 31.

Soil moisture throughout the state has improved and is good down to two or three feet. But climatologists say they would like to see saturated soils to five feet or deeper before the spring planting season.

"We still have a long way to go," said State Climatologist Al Dutcher, who noted that many areas of the state, especially in the northeast, had record precipitation this summer.

Floodwaters that wreaked havoc on Colorado's Front Range helped recharge the South Platte River and some of its reservoirs, and they're still flowing.

Water flow on the Platte at Grand Island was 87 cubic feet per second a year ago and on Wednesday, the measurement was 2,170 cfs, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the drought mitigation center.

"The basin is getting a good scouring, which is helpful for the long-term health of the basin," he said. "The Colorado flood has been a positive for the state of Nebraska."

Lake McConaughy, the state's largest reservoir near Ogallala, saw little benefit, though, because it is in the North Platte River Basin. Inflows are about 14 percent of normal for this time of the year, and the reservoir is slightly less than half full.

Recent rains have slowed down harvest this fall. Thirty-two percent of corn was harvested by Sunday, well behind 88 percent on the same date last year, Nick Streff, deputy regional director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, told the committee. Soybean harvest was 80 percent complete.

Jack Daniel with the state Department of Health and Human Services reported that just 15 municipal water systems implemented water conservation measures this summer.

"Timely rains helped prevent problems," he said.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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