The crippling drought that gripped Kansas and much of the Great Plains this summer shows no signs of easing, weather officials say.
In fact, the drought is expected to persist or intensify in most of the western half of the U.S. through at least January.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s seasonal drought outlook through January calls for the drought to persist or worsen in all or portions of virtually every state west of the Mississippi.
Nearly 84 percent of Kansas is in either extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor report released last week.
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“I definitely think the drought is still going to be a problem” this winter, said Jack Boston, expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather in State College, Penn. “We’re hopeful that maybe later in the spring and into next summer we might do a little better for moisture in the Great Plains.
Watering restrictions remain in place for four Kansas cities, including Augusta and Mulvane, as well as four rural water districts in Montgomery County, according to the Kansas Water Office. Russell banned all outdoor watering last month. Burn bans remain in place in 21 counties around Kansas.
A winter of watering
It will take 6 to 9 inches of rain to erase the drought in the Wichita area, forecasters say.
“It looks like another winter where we need to do some watering,” said Ward Upham, a Kansas State University horticulturist.
Since most people who have sprinkler systems for their lawns have already winterized them, Upham said, it’s best to use hoses to soak soil for trees, bushes and other landscaping.
“If you lose a tree, it may take 40 years to get it back to that size,” Sedgwick County Extension Agent Bob Neier said.
Landscape bushes may need five years, he said, while a freshly planted and properly tended lawn could be thriving in a matter of weeks.
Last winter may have been called “mild,” Upham said, but it wasn’t mild on plants. Their root systems suffered because of the dry conditions, making them much more vulnerable to the intense heat during the summer that followed.
Spruce trees in particular have been hard hit by the dry weather that has plagued Kansas for most of the past year, Upham said.
New plantings and new trees are the most vulnerable to these dry conditions, he said, because their root systems haven’t had a chance to extend deep into the ground. For trees to benefit most from watering, he said, the soil must be soaked as much as a foot below the surface.
“The rooting hairs that actually take in water close to the surface have gone dormant,” Upham said. “You need to get that (water) down to where there are live feeder roots that can pick it up.”
Residents can use long screwdrivers or dowels to measure how deep into the soil the water has soaked, he said. If the dowel easily goes into the ground, the soil is moist. Once you meet resistance, the soil is dry.
As long as the dry conditions persist, Neier said, residents should water their trees and landscaping about every week to week-and-a-half.
Trees should be watered just inside their “drip line,” which Upham said is the point where the branches end. Watering beyond the branches — or too close to the trunk — puts the water to places where the roots won’t reach it.
The drought of 2012 already stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the worst of the 20th Century, Schminke said in a presentation to the Wichita chapter of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association.
The drought covered as much geographic area as droughts during the 1950s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, he said. It formed so quickly it qualifies as “a flash drought,” said Eric Schminke, a meteorologist and the climatologist for the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.
Wichita and most of southern Kansas were in good shape for moisture through the end of April, Schminke said, but a large dome of high pressure settled over the western two-thirds of the U.S. in May. That pushed the jet stream into Canada, taking needed precipitation with it.
Between May and August, the drought went from non-existent to extreme, he said. Though there were a few rains in late summer and early fall, Wichita remained nearly 6 inches below normal for the year by the end of October. It’s even worse in Salina, which is nearly 12 inches below normal for the same period.
The drought led to the worst Kansas wheat crop in more than 25 years and the lowest corn yields since 1995.
Crop insurance programs have paid out more than $459 million in crop indemnities this year as of October 29, according to the state water office. Those payments can be based on the difference between historical yields and the actual yield or the difference between historical and actual crop revenues.
With ponds drying up and pastures withering, many ranchers sold off their cattle herds, Schminke said.
Those that held onto their herds saw feed prices soar.
The timing of this drought is not unusual, Schminke said. Intense droughts seem to hit the Midwest about every 20 years, and this drought fits that pattern, he said.
“As anyone with even a passing interest in climate and meteorology knows, the 1910s, 1930s, 1950s and much of the 1970s were drought-ridden,” Schminke wrote in an e-mail response to questions.
Signs that a weak El Nino – an unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator – was developing have vanished.
A ridge of high pressure has formed over the northern Pacific, Boston said, splitting the jet stream. The northern jet is flowing through Canada and the southern jet has been pushed so far south it won’t bring consistent precipitation to Kansas, Boston said.
Whatever moisture that falls in Kansas this winter isn’t likely to dent the precipitation deficit much, he said.
The best chances for the drought to break in the short term, Schminke told the crowd at the meeting of meteorologists, is if a hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico and travels so far west that by the time it comes north into Texas the remnants move up into Kansas, bringing soaking rains with it. But that’s a long shot any year.