Severe drought conditions expected to continue through winter

Posted: Dec 21, 2012

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MIssouri River

Climatologists are predicting that the drought that has parched more than half of the United States this year will last at least through the winter with compounding impacts on agriculture, water supplies, food prices and wildlife.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and author of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, said this year's drought is historically unusual in its intensity and size.

"We usually tell people that drought is a slow-moving natural disaster, but this year was more of a flash drought," Svoboda said. "With the sustained, widespread heat waves during the spring and early summer coupled with the lack of rains, the impacts came on in a matter of weeks instead of over several months."

According to year-end Drought Monitor data, more than 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states and half of the entire country was classified as in severe to extreme drought for large portions of 2012. This year was the first time in the 13-year history of the monitor that all 50 U.S. states and Puerto Rico experienced drought.

The drought has receded slightly over the past few months in the Midwest but remains entrenched in the Great Plains. This week, incremental changes in the South, Southeast and West led to a slight shrinkage in overall drought -- dipping a tenth of a percentage point from last week to 51.7 percent of the country. Conditions intensified in some of the hardest-hit areas, however.

The agricultural industry has felt the drought keenly. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency said indemnity payments for 2012 had reached nearly $8 billion. Ranchers across the Great Plains are scrambling to find feed for cattle with the winter wheat crop suffering and hay prices rising.

Low water flows along the Missouri River have caused a panic in the barge industry. At a handful of choke points along the Mississippi River, water levels are dipping close to the 9-foot depth that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with maintaining for navigation.

The Army Corps this week began excavation work on rock pinnacles that stretch over about 6 miles of the river near Thebes, Ill. And over the weekend, the Army Corps began releasing water from reservoirs near St. Louis to add some depth.

"The short answer is, we need rain," Edward Belk, programs director for the corps' Mississippi Valley Division, told members of the Inland Waterways Users Board at a meeting in Paducah, Ky., yesterday. "It seems that between the record floods we experienced last year and the near-record droughts this year, that we simply cannot escape history."

The barge industry has been pressing for greater water releases. Earlier this week, the American Waterways Operators said the amount of cargo that barges can carry has been reduced by nearly a third and the tows are carrying less than half the number of barges, affecting shipments of agricultural commodities, coal, chemical and petroleum products worth billions of dollars.

"The effects of this crisis are already being felt by industry workers, shippers, farmers and manufacturers up and down the river and they are going to get worse," said Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of American Waterways Operators, in a statement.

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