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Monday, April 14, 2014

The heat’s back over Wichita, and likely to stay for a while

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

Back into the furnace we go.

Another summer heat wave will clamp down on Kansas and the nation’s heartland today, with forecasters projecting temperatures to top 100 degrees in Wichita for at least the next six days, after Monday’s relative respite of 97.

“A high pressure ridge is building back in,” National Weather Service meteorologist Vanessa Pearce said. “I don’t foresee any major changes for the next several days.”

That’s bad news for an already parched region. About two-thirds of Kansas is either severely dry or excessively dry.

Gov. Sam Brownback today will begin touring areas hit hardest by the drought. Saline County will be his first stop, with plans to visit Neosho and Labette counties on Wednesday and the northwestern region next week.

The Weather Channel reported data computed from the Palmer Drought Severity Index shows that 54.6 percent of the contiguous 48 states was in drought at the end of June, the highest percentage since December 1956 — and the sixth-highest peak percentage on record.

In terms of geographic area, the percentage of the country currently in drought has been topped only by three months in the Dust Bowl 1930s and two months in the 1950s.

The nation’s corn and soybean belt has been especially hard hit over the past three months, according to new data released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center.

“Topsoil has dried out and crops, pastures and rangeland have deteriorated at a rate rarely seen in the last 18 years,” the report said.

The forecast is bad news almost across the board — from farmers to oil drillers to urban dwellers.

Ozone levels

Crops are struggling, surface water pumping has been restricted across the state, and ozone levels in Wichita and other large Great Plains cities could rise to levels that violate federal clean air standards.

“We could see some pretty high ozone levels” later this week, said Doug Watson, environmental scientist and meteorologist for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Bureau of Air.

Ozone concentrations on Thursday and Friday in Sedgwick and Sumner counties exceeded allowable levels, raising concerns for the second time this summer about health consequences and possible federal sanctions.

The federal standard for ozone is 0.075 parts per million, “and we exceeded the standard on three days last week at almost all the monitoring locations,” said Kay Johnson, manager of the office of environmental initiatives at Wichita’s Metropolitan Area Planning Department.

The recipe for high ozone readings includes few clouds, lots of sunshine, high temperatures and little wind, Watson said.

“It’s all going to depend on the wind speed, really,” he said. “The lower the wind speeds, the more likely the chance ozone will form. You have to have that sunshine to drive that chemical reaction.

“Once we get winds up into the 20 mile-per-hour range, it’s a little harder to get that ozone reaction. The wind just mixes up the atmosphere so much you don’t get as high of a reading.”

Water issues

Water is so hard to come by that the Dallas-based company Petro River Oil is delaying the start of drilling projects in Kansas for at least two weeks.

“Water issues are in the forefront of every oil company’s considerations,” said Ruben Alba, Petro’s co-chief executive officer. “We’re not going to move into any new regions until we understand the economics of the water first.”

With surface water pumping now halted by state directive for all permits issued since April 12, 1984, oil companies operating in Kansas are exploring alternatives for their drilling projects, Alba said. That includes using recycled water streams or even trucking water in from municipal water sources.

That’s expensive, he said, but “it’s in the equation.”

Petro River has accumulated nearly 100,000 acres in eastern Kansas and plans to commence drilling operations soon.

‘It’s just hot’

The year ending June 30 is the warmest 12-month period on record for the contiguous United States, according to the National Weather Service. But this summer doesn’t stack up to last summer, Pearce said. At least, not yet.

There have been 14 100-degree days so far this year, she said. That compares to 21 over the same period in 2011.

Pearce said all the comparisons being made with summers past are virtually useless.

“It’s just hot — that’s what it is,” Pearce said.

There’s nothing unusual about the weather pattern settling in over the Great Plains. These domes of high pressure are common this time of year, she said. They push the jet stream north and deflect weak storm systems away from Kansas.

Scattered, isolated “pop-up” thunderstorms can still form and dump even heavy rain on small areas, she said. But they won’t be enough to provide much relief.

“It’s very isolated and very widely scattered,” Pearce said of any potential shower activity.

Folks who have lived in Kansas for any length of time should be used to what’s coming, she said.

“It’s Kansas, and it’s July,” she said.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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