By Alexander E.M. Hess, Samuel Weigley, and Michael Sauter, 24/7 Wall St.
The United States is in the midst of one of the biggest droughts in recent memory. At last count, over half of the lower 48 states had abnormally dry conditions and are suffering from at least moderate drought.
More than 80 percent of seven states were as of last week in “severe drought,” characterized by crop or pasture loss, water shortage, and water restrictions. Depending on whether the hardest-hit regions see significant precipitation, crops yields could fall and drought conditions could persist for months to come. Based on the latest data provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the seven states running out of water.
U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist and Drought Monitor team member Brad Rippey explained that when the drought began in 2012, the worst of the conditions were much farther east, in states like Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan — the corn belt states. Based on pre-drought estimates, corn used for grain lost slightly more than a quarter of its potential. By the Summer of 2012, 59 percent of U.S. rangeland and pastureland was rated by the USDA as being in poor or very poor condition. The growing drought decimated national hay production, causing feed shortages, which in turn drove up prices in livestock.
By the fall of 2012, drought conditions continued to expand westward to its current epicenter — states like Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma. Rippey explained that most worrying is the drought’s effects on the winter wheat crop, which is one of the biggest crops grown in the U.S., and which is grown almost entirely in the states in severe drought. While the region has had some precipitation recently, “winter wheat crop will need ideal conditions heading through the next few weeks just to break even. We’re still trending toward a very poor hard red winter wheat crop at this point,” Rippey said.
In addition to severe drought conditions, relatively large areas in the worst-off states are in “exceptional” drought, which the USDA identifies as “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses, shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.” More than 70 percent of Nebraska is currently classified as being in a state of “exceptional drought,” which includes exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.
The last time the United States saw a drought close to this level of severity was in the 1980s, Rippey explained. But even compared to that drought, the current conditions may be worse. “You really need to go back to the 1950s to find a drought that lasted and occupied at least as much territory,” Rippey said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, the USDA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the seven states that had at least 80 percent of the total area classified in at least a state of severe drought as of March 14. We also reviewed agricultural statistics, such as crop yields, in these states, using data collected from USDA state agricultural overviews. Most of these data are for 2011.
- Severe drought: 83.2 percent
- Extreme drought: 56.7 percent (fourth highest)
- Exceptional drought: 9.7 percent (sixth highest)
Over half the area of Oklahoma currently suffers from extreme drought — the second worst level listed on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Oklahoma shares this distinction with just four other states. Drought conditions have actually improved since the start of the year. The percentage of the state facing exceptional drought — the worst category of drought — has fallen from 37 percent at the start of the year to less than 10 percent currently.
In January, the USDA declared a large part of the winter wheat belt, spanning from Texas to North Dakota, as a disaster area due to the lack of moisture. According to the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, recent precipitation has not been enough to help the winter wheat crop in the state that had to be planted in dry soil.
- Severe drought: 83.7 percent
- Extreme drought: 54.7 percent (fifth highest)
- Exceptional drought: 10.1 percent (fifth highest)
Wyoming is one of the driest states in the country, a condition not likely to improve in the near future. According to the National Weather Service, the drought is expected to persist or worsen in most of the state over the next few months. The most critical drought problems are taking place in the eastern portion of the state.
In the summer of 2012, Governor Matt Mead had to ask the federal government for disaster relief due to the drought. During the year before the request, ranchers working on non-irrigated land had lost about half their pasture grass and hay production because of the drought, a state agriculture official told Reuters.
5. South Dakota
- Severe drought: 86.3 percent
- Extreme drought: 67.5 percent (second highest)
- Exceptional drought: 20.1 percent (fourth highest)
More than two-thirds of South Dakota suffers from extreme drought, the second highest portion of any state. Additionally, South Dakota is one of just four states where more than 20 percent of its area faces exceptional drought. As with many other states, much of South Dakota’s winter wheat crop was hurt by the lack of precipitation. According to the USDA, at the end of February, 66 percent of winter wheat crop was considered to be in poor or very poor condition, up from 31 percent in February 2012.
- Severe drought: 89.0 percent
- Extreme drought: 48.1 percent (seventh highest)
- Exceptional drought: 21.2 percent (third highest)
Colorado is one of five states where all of its area is considered to be in moderate drought, with nearly 90 percent of the state experiencing severe drought. With the exception of the northeast corner of the state, the drought is expected to either persist or get worse over the next several months. Yet even most the northeast corner is experiencing either extreme or exceptional drought.
Due to the ongoing problems, several of Colorado’s largest municipal water providers are considering restricting spring and summer lawn-watering, potentially limiting landowners to watering their grass just twice a week. Crop production declined significantly in 2012 compared to 2011, with wheat production falling 9.3 percent, while corn production fell a whopping 29 percent.
3. New Mexico
- Severe drought: 89.9 percent
- Extreme drought: 49.9 percent (sixth highest)
- Exceptional drought: 4.3 percent (eighth highest)
As of early March, normal weather conditions persist in only about 0.21 percent of New Mexico — the highest percentage in nearly a year. However, for most of the state problems remain. Last July, the USDA designated Cibola County as a primary disaster area due to drought. Six counties bordering Cibola, including Bernalillo County where Albuquerque is located, also qualified for natural disaster assistance. In late February, Albuquerque’s water board announced a “drought watch,” which raised fines for wasting water to $40 for first offenders.
- Severe drought: 96.4 percent
- Extreme drought: 64.6 percent (third highest)
- Exceptional drought: 21.4 percent (second highest)
Severe drought conditions persist in more than 96 percent of Kansas. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of the state is experiencing extreme drought, while more than one-fifth is experiencing exceptional drought. The good news for Kansas is that rain in March has eased the drought, although National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Kleinsasser told the Associated Press earlier this week that the state is still experiencing “precipitation deficits” of as much as 20 inches in many parts of the state.
Kansas produces about 20 percent of the nation’s wheat, more than any other state. Wheat production was up 38 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, although the drought affecting the state probably will make this level of production unsustainable for 2013.
- Severe drought: 100 percent
- Extreme drought: 96.1 percent (the highest)
- Exceptional drought: 76.4 percent (the highest)
Nebraska is unique among all states in that all areas are experiencing at least a severe drought. Worse, extreme drought conditions persist in more than 96 percent of the state, with a stunning 76 percent of the state experiencing exceptional drought. In the next worst-hit state, Kansas, just 21.4 percent of all area suffers from exceptional drought.
Drought has hurt much of the state’s winter wheat crop, 50 percent of which was in poor or very poor condition at the end of February, up from just 6 percent last year. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center estimates that the drought in Nebraska will last — with some improvement in conditions — through at least the end of May.