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Next Year's Water Supply Hinges on Winter Storms

The West's river basins get 75 to 80 percent of water from melting snow

Boats sit on the dry, cracked bottom in a dry cove at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Ind., Monday, July 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The drought that overcame more than two-thirds of the United States this year will continue into 2013, the National Drought Mitigation Center said yesterday.

Although it's still unclear how many inches of rain or snow will be needed to recover from the drought, "it's fair to say it needs to be an above-normal year in the basins where water supplies are very low," said Michael Hayes, director of the center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The Missouri, Platte and Colorado river basins in the center and west of the country are some that have seen the worst retreats in water levels, Hayes said. The West's river basins get 75 to 80 percent of their water from melting snow in the springtime.

The drought was "historically unusual in its speed, its intensity and its size," according to a statement by the National Drought Mitigation Center. This is uncommon for a natural disaster that is defined by its slow but lingering nature, unlike rapid events like hurricanes or floods.

According to the latest Drought Monitor report, nearly 70 percent of the country is in abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions.

The mild winter last year left little snow and rain for soil to absorb in the spring. Plants began using moisture a month or two early, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the center and author of yesterday's Drought Monitor. Heat and dryness from mid-May onward drove massive wildfires and widespread crop losses across the Midwest. Early predictions for an El Niño weather pattern did not come to fruition, and the Midwestern skies remained dry through the fall.

The amount of rain and snow needed to recover from the drought will depend on the region of the United States, said Dale Mohler, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather. Drought measurements are partly based on the rain deficit from what's normal, so the Ohio Valley and eastern United States will need more precipitation than the typically drier Rocky Mountains or the Southwest.

Arkansas, Oklahoma and eastern Texas will need about 15 to 18 inches of rain to recover over the winter, an unlikely event, Mohler said. Farther north into the Great Plains, the soil will need at least 3 to 6 inches.

The good news for agriculture, he added, is that there needn't be a full recovery from the drought for crops to grow. If there is sufficient rain in the summer, that could be enough for a good fall harvest.

The fate of the winter wheat crop through the Plains states - which needs a good dousing of water before it goes dormant until spring - remains worrisome, Mohler said.

"There's still a lot of dryness to erase in Nebraska and Kansas," he said. "My concern is definitely for the wheat crop. It doesn't look like it will be an active winter in Nebraska, Kansas, and the [Texas and Oklahoma] panhandles."

From abundance to scarcity

What complicates matters further, Hayes said, is that water resource managers were caught off-guard.

"Because the previous years were so good, we weren't worried on some of those issues," he said. The Missouri River Basin, which feeds into the Mississippi River, was the site of extensive flooding due to heavy rains in 2011.

Now, the low levels are threatening the economic importance of the Mississippi, as the Army Corps of Engineers scrambles to upgrade the river's locks and infrastructure to accommodate the drought's damage. Last year, a paper published in the journal Science predicted that increasing temperatures and less snowfall in the north due to climate change would lead to lower peak stream flows in the Missouri, Columbia and Colorado rivers (ClimateWire, June 29, 2011).

"As this drought becomes a longer-term drought, as it stays dry, we will see impacts on some of the longer hydrological supplies," said Hayes, referring to the Missouri River.

Colorado's municipal water managers have also needed to shift from resting comfortably to taking action on their water supplies. Reservoirs in 2011 were plentiful, thanks to a good snow year in the Rockies, said Taryn Finnessey, a drought and climate change technical specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

But last March, one of Colorado's historically heavy snow months was marred by higher temperatures and a dry atmosphere. Cities and towns began to see declining water storage.

Denver, the state's largest city, instituted voluntary restrictions on water use. Steamboat Springs, population 11,951, implemented mandatory restrictions for the first time.

"Going forward in 2013, there is some concern that reservoir levels are lower than we'd like them to be," Finnessey said. "We are hoping for a strong snowpack."

Storms could replenish soils

The state will need "normal or above-normal snowfall," Finnessey added. That would require at least 16 inches on average in the snowiest month, according to data from the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The storms across the Midwest that have disrupted holiday travel have brought some relief to the Midwest, with Des Moines, Iowa, receiving 67 percent of its monthly average for December rain. Fuchs, the author of the Drought Monitor, expects a "vigorous" system to exit the Great Plains and cover the Great Lakes and the Midwest before reaching New England.

Colorado has experienced "consistent and heavy storms" over the past two weeks, a small source of hope, Finnessey said.

An El Niño pattern, a weather effect driven by rising ocean temperatures, is not expected for at least another eight months, Mohler said. This would drench the area of the country most affected by drought.

Although the Midwest may see some relief soon, the South is as dry as ever. Dust from the parched soil is rising in 55 mph winds, decreasing visibility and causing a 23-vehicle accident in Lubbock, Texas.

"It looks like the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle," Mohler said.

For more weather news, visit AccuWeather.com.

See on AccuWeather.com: Drought to Cause Dairy, Meat, Other Food Prices to Rise

RELATED ON SKYE: 7 Surprising Health Effects of Drought

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