The Heat Is Online

NOAA Sees Dry Spring for Western U.S.

Spring drought seen in US West, Plains - NOAA, March 24, 2003

WASHINGTON - A severe drought parching the Midwest, northern Plains and western United States is not expected to improve in coming months because of light winter snowfall and scant spring rains, U.S. weather forecasters said last week.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned in its spring weather outlook that Western states such as Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska face "bleak" water supplies lingering into the summer.

However, it was a different story for the Eastern seaboard, where above-normal snowfall and rain have erased last year's drought and could unleash flooding, NOAA said.

Thick ice on rivers in eastern New York state and northern New England could lead to serious flooding if heavy rains combined with rapid snow melt, the agency said.

"Depending on where you live or play, you're either thankful for the drought-busting Eastern rains and snow, or disappointed by the lack of Western snow pack," said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher.


Some areas of the West are entering their fifth year of drought, which has shriveled crops, drained rivers and sparked fires in bone-dry forests. For Colorado, 2002 was the driest year since record-keeping began in 1895, while neighboring Nebraska, Wyoming and Nevada recorded their third-driest year.

The recent snow storm that dumped 30 to 80 inches on the area will help, but it will take more than one storm to ease drought conditions in those states, NOAA noted.

About one-third of U.S. land remains in a drought, down from 53 percent at this time a year ago, NOAA said.

The dryness throughout much of the West also could boost electricity prices, because a shortage of water to cool nuclear generating plants forces them to throttle back production, and low water levels hinder hydroelectric plants.

According to the Northwest River Forecast Center, which predicts runoff in the heavily dammed Columbia River, water flow into the lower river is running about 30 percent below normal.

"With El Nino's influence fading, the major factor this spring is the long term, multiyear water shortages in parts of the West," said John Jones, deputy assistant administrator for NOAA's National Weather Service.

Significant rain is "unlikely" until summer or autumn, he added.

El Nino, Spanish for "boy child," is an abnormal warming of waters in the Pacific that occurs every four to five years. The El Nino of the past few months increased winter storms in the eastern United States and curtailed snow in the Plains states.

Forecasters said El Nino has rapidly faded, and should be gone by the end of April.


This winter's El Nino brought good news to Eastern states, replenishing low water levels after several years of below-normal rainfall, NOAA said.

The one-time precipitation shortage has turned into a glut in some areas. Boston and Baltimore each recorded nearly 40 inches of snow in February, a record for the month.

The wet fall and winter set the stage for possible flooding this spring across eastern states. The largest threat is from eastern Texas to the Ohio Valley and east to the Atlantic.

In farming states of the Midwest and northern Plains, where winter snowfall was several inches below normal, NOAA urged growers to prepare for spring drought.

"I suspect it will be another difficult year for those regions in terms of crops," said Lautenbacher.

Spring planting is due to begin throughout the region during the next few weeks.

A swath of rain has moved through key parts of the Great Plains in recent days, however, easing concerns over the fate of hard red winter wheat plantings. But forecasters said it would take a series of storms to fully alleviate drought conditions in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska.

Farther west, NOAA said any melting of the mountain snowpack would be quickly absorbed by parched land, providing limited relief to depleted reservoirs.

Last summer, the United States battled one of the worst droughts in history, with high temperatures and a lack of rain scorching corn, wheat and soybean crops. The drought also helped burn some 7.1 million acres of forest land, marking the second worst fire season in U.S. history.

At one point last year, a drought covered nearly half of the United States, with weather ranging from moderately dry to conditions mimicking the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Many states declared emergencies and urged residents to conserve water.