Time is running out to avert a third summer of drought in much of the High Plains, West and Southwest, federal officials warned Thursday.
Without repeated, significant bouts of heavy snow and rain in the remaining days of winter, a large part of the country will face serious water supply shortages this spring and summer, when temperatures are hotter and average precipitation is normally low.
The drought already ranks as the worst, in terms of severity and geographic extent, since the 1950s. Though it’s not over yet, its economic impact appears to be severe, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist at the Agriculture Department’s Office of the Chief Economist.
It “will probably end up being a top-five disaster event” on the government’s ranking of the costliest weather events of the past three decades, he said at a Capitol Hill briefing Thursday.
There is little relief predicted in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest three-month drought outlook, which the agency released Thursday. Federal forecasters predict that drought will persist in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states, expand throughout northern and southern California and return to most of Texas, a state that has been mired in drought since 2011.
NOAA does forecast improvements in drought conditions in the Upper Midwest and Southeast, areas that have received beneficial precipitation in recent weeks.
“The next couple of months will kind of determine how the spring and summer plays out in that part of the country,” said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. Crouch said that continued drought conditions could threaten water supplies in many areas, particularly in the Southwest.
Dwindling Water Supplies
With drought extending into its second or even third year in some areas, the main concerns are shifting from agriculture and recreation to water supplies as rivers run dry and reservoirs shrink.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on Feb. 15, Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said water managers are especially concerned about the situation in West Texas, where emergency conservation plans have gone into effect as water supplies dwindle.
In the western U.S., low mountain snowpack is once again a concern, especially in portions of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming that feed the Platte and Arkansas rivers, said Mike Strobel of USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.