WASHINGTON – Drought conditions blanketing much of the Western United States are not expected to improve this spring, leading to more potential for “large, destructive” fires in some areas, U.S. government weather forecasters said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned in its spring weather outlook, which covers the April-June period, that above average precipitation during the winter has done little to improve multi-year drought conditions in Western states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Montana. The West has “a long way to go and the odds are against them that there will be any substantial relief during the spring for the areas that are in severe or exceptional drought,” said NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. The weather agency said there is a good likelihood for below-normal temperatures in the northern Great Plains and above-normal temperatures in Alaska, the Southwest and parts of the South. The absence of El Niño and La Niña – two weather patterns that allow for greater forecast certainty – will bring average precipitation and temperatures to the Eastern states, but there could be wide swings in weather conditions, NOAA said.
DROUGHT IN THE WEST
Some Western areas are entering their sixth year of drought, which has shriveled crops, drained water reservoirs and sparked fires in bone-dry forests. NOAA estimated drought had affected more than 50 percent of the West. The United States overall is projected to have a normal wildfire season, but persistent drought and insect damage in Wyoming, Colorado and parts of the Southwest have created “a greater potential for large, destructive fires.” Even though states in the Rocky Mountain region had a wet winter and have had quenching precipitation in recent weeks, a substantial water-deficit in many areas means several years of normal precipitation will be needed to replenish reservoirs. Water shortages will be felt the most in Arizona and New Mexico, where parched soil will soak up any water before it reaches streams or rivers. Chris Pacheco, resource conservationist with the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the recent rains are a short-term buffer for drought-stricken areas. “Next year we’re going to be back in the same boat with low reservoir storage,” he said.
As of March 1, record or near-record low reservoir levels existed in many parts of the West, with capacity below 50 percent in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.
Snowpack levels are above average throughout much of the West. Water levels also are higher than normal in the Pacific Northwest, northern Nevada and the northern Rockies in Montana and Idaho, which depend on waterflow to generate power at hydroelectric plants.
FARMERS BENEFIT FROM WINTER SNOWS
Forecasters said “timely rains” will further ease current water shortages from previous droughts in the northern and central Plains. Spring wheat planted last autumn is beginning to break dormancy in the Midwest. Significant precipitation in early March has been beneficial for winter wheat in eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. Moisture is still scarce in eastern Colorado, Montana and the Dakotas, and could jeopardize prospects for yields during harvest, according to forecasters. “We’ve seen some real improvement in the Great Plains,” said Douglas Le Comte, a senior meteorologist with NOAA. “But it’s a tough call for the winter wheat crop as a whole, still probably not very good.”