AGRICULTURE:

Mighty trans-U.S. snowstorm barely tweaks drought-parched states

Despite a massive snowstorm that crossed the United States, the nation's severe drought profile has barely changed.

Yesterday's Drought Monitor indicated that total drought across the contiguous United States dropped from 66.38 percent to 65.37 percent, but that the two most extreme classifications of drought combined increased slightly from 22.4 percent to 22.49 percent.

While this week's storm quenched the dryness of the Midwest, drought areas in Texas and Florida grew. Conditions in the eastern half of Texas -- where most of the major metropolitan hubs are located -- were mild compared to the deterioration in the western half. Reservoir levels remain at record lows in that region.

Despite the snowstorms that passed over the Northern Plains states and the Midwest, the frozen soils are not absorbing the snow, which has mostly remained solid in the cold weather, said Matthew Rosencrans, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and author of this week's Drought Outlook.

"Any melting that does occur is hitting the surface and running off," he said. Streamflows may rise temporarily, but then recede quickly.

"The actual conditions in the ground are not improving, even though streamflows and reservoirs are coming up again," added Rosencrans.

The warmup rate over the next few weeks will determine the recharge rate, he added. Above-normal temperatures in Texas, coupled with strong westerly winds, added to the drought's exacerbation, explained Rosencrans.

Farmers are looking to see how this will affect the spring planting season, which begins in mid- to late March depending on the region. While some big corn states like Illinois and Indiana are faring relatively well, said Rosencrans, central Iowa and Nebraska will need to go a long way to recharge soils.

A 'critical' month in Neb.

"This month is extremely critical," said Rosencrans. Spring storms will begin to provide rains rather than snow, offering better watering in which to sow seeds.

At this time last year, the overall area in drought was 48.17 percent, and the area in extreme to exceptional drought was 6.39 percent.

The snowstorm arrived through the Pacific Northwest and barreled across the northern United States. The blizzards caused transportation delays in the Midwest, and the storm's predicted strength closed much of the federal government in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, although the expected snow barely materialized.

Texas drought has expanded in pockets along the Rio Grande, which forms a border with Mexico. The Amistad and Falcon International reservoirs are well below 50 percent, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist.

A potential international struggle over water is percolating, he added. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) sent a letter to the International Boundary and Water Commission this week to ensure that Mexico adheres to an international treaty that requires the country to divert Rio Grande water to Texas.

Winter wheat, which farmers will begin to harvest in April, has been hit hard in the spot between Wichita Falls and Abilene in north-central Texas. The area around Abilene has received rain in erratic pulses over the past couple of months, he added, but the rainfall was not significant enough to drench the soils. Another exceptional drought patch lies around San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

Nielsen-Gammon expects an entire week of dry weather for the state, with the possible exception of south Texas. Farmers who don't have irrigation on their land will be forced to delay spring planting, meaning they may need to forgo planting corn this year.

'Drought fatigue' and the U.S. wheat crop

In the bowl of exceptional drought lying in the middle of the country, Nebraska sits in the middle, three-quarters covered in exceptional drought last week. The state saw no reduction in overall drought conditions, with very minor easing of exceptional drought from 76.94 percent last week to 76.76 percent this week.

"I was highly doubtful that there would be any change, and there was no change," said Bryce Anderson, a senior agricultural meteorologist with DTN located in Omaha, Neb.

A tiny corner in the state's panhandle made the transition from exceptional drought to a step lower, extreme drought.

"We're not even talking an entire county," Anderson said.

Agricultural markets are looking to Kansas, the breadbasket of the country for winter wheat, for signals of the crop outcome, said Anderson. Kansas is completely in drought, with one-fifth of the state in exceptional drought. Analysts have developed a type of drought fatigue, said Anderson, in which they no longer track the drought's effects because it has lasted so long.

"The fact that there was snow in central Kansas last week and the week before, that got the market to think wheat had a chance to improve," he said. In addition, global supplies of wheat are thriving. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has forecast the second-largest crop on record for this year. Russia and Ukraine, two of the largest global exporters, have recovered their normal yields over the last poor-performing years.

"We are somewhat cautious," said Anderson. "There are a lot of questions on how the U.S. hard winter wheat crop is going to perform, but there are other scenarios in other countries."