The level of drought in the continental United States has reached a nearly two-year low, according to last week's U.S. Drought Monitor.
As of Tuesday, about 30.5 percent of the lower 48 states was in moderate drought or worse, the smallest area since Dec. 27, 2011. Recent rains in the Southwest and the South led to improvements in Arizona, Utah and Colorado and from Texas to Tennessee, resulting in a 1.88-percentage-point drop in the overall drought level.
This is good news for winter wheat growers. Farmers faced an uneasy period last fall when low rainfall caused them to delay the planting period to avoid poor germination of wheat seed.
"This year, planting has been right on par with normal," said Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist with the Agriculture Department and one of the authors of the weekly Drought Monitor.
As of Nov. 24, 93 percent of winter wheat had emerged from seed, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, 5 percentage points more than last year.
Hay-growing and cattle-raising areas in drought also fell slightly, by 1 percentage point from last week. Sixty-two percent of the wheat crop is in good to excellent condition, up from about 33 percent this time last year (ClimateWire, Nov. 26, 2012).
Nevertheless, drought is still an issue in the southern High Plains, where a pocket of exceptional drought remains in northern Texas, on the Oklahoma border near Wichita Falls.
Marginal improvements in the Southwest are not likely to be long-lasting, said Rippey. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual winter outlook last month, predicting no respite from ongoing drought (ClimateWire, Nov. 22).
The historical average drought rate for the contiguous United States is 20 percent, a level the country has exceeded for the last three years. In the summer of 2012, the drought across the center of the country shrank corn yields and drove the price of the crop above $8 per bushel, a historic high.
The country probably won't come back to the 20 percent average anytime soon, said Rippey.
"In the Southwest, there probably won't be much additional recovery," he said.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.
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