Wichita area now in an extreme drought

07/28/2011 12:00 AM

07/28/2011 2:01 PM

Cracks in the ground are now an inch or two wide. Ponds that have withstood many sizzling summers have gone dry.

With pastures losing their protein and feed hay hard to come by, ranchers are taking their cattle to market early.

Rick Cooper hasn't seen it like this in Sedgwick County in decades.

"Probably 1980," said Cooper, who manages the Andale Co-op branch at Furley in northeast Sedgwick County. "I don't remember anything quite this drastic since then."

This year is drawing comparisons with 1980 and Wichita's other hottest summers, and the heat is being magnified by a lack of moisture.

Wichita and the surrounding area is now in extreme drought, according to the National Drought Monitor. The drought has gradually moved east from southwest Kansas as the summer has progressed and the rain has stayed away.

"You couple that with high temperatures, even if they don't set records they're still adding stress to everything around, so it's just that double whammy that is intensifying the drought in that area," state climatologist Mary Knapp said.

Gov. Sam Brownback this week asked U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to declare Sedgwick and nine other Kansas counties disaster areas because of the extreme weather. Other counties included in the request are Clay, Pratt, Doniphan, Atchison, Leavenworth, Kiowa, Wyandotte, Wallace and Osborne.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already issued drought disaster declarations for 46 Kansas counties.

Wichita has recorded just 0.35 inches of rain this month, more than 2 inches below normal. For the year, Wichita is more than 6 1/2 inches below normal.

Meanwhile, the average temperature in July has been eight degrees above normal, according to National Weather Service records.

The average high in July has been 101.2, the third-highest average since records began being kept in the late 1880s. Only 1980, at 104.9, and 1954, at 102.6, top this year.

This month has reached such lofty levels despite setting only two temperature records: 111 on July 10 and 111 on Wednesday.

"You can go 3 feet deep and not reach sub-soil moisture," Cooper said. "That's going to take a lot of rain" to make up the deficit.

"Some of the farmers are taking advantage of the dry ponds and digging the pond deeper" so it'll hold more water when the rains return, Cooper said.

While Augusta and Mulvane have instituted watering restrictions, Wichita officials aren't anticipating the need even as the drought and heat wave drag on.

"We don't see that as being an issue up to this point in time or in the immediate future," said Joe Pajor, the city's co-interim director of public works and utilities.

Many Wichitans are simply letting their lawns fade to brown rather than rack up huge water bills.

Pajor said the city encourages water conservation by customers by having one price structure for use up to 110 percent of their average monthly usage during the winter, another rate block for 110 to 130 percent and still another rate for water beyond 130 percent.

"The third block is really designed as an incentive not to go even further... by sending a price signal: 'You really need to think about how you're using water,' " Pajor said.

Forecasters and officials aren't sure how long this heat wave and drought will continue.

"There's two things that we're really watching for and rooting for," Knapp said. "One would be a landfall of a tropical system. That would push the high pressure out of the region."

Tropical Storm Don in the Gulf is developing near the Yucatan Peninsula and is expected to take a west-northwest path as the week progresses. But it's too soon to know what effect, if any, it might have on the high pressure dome.

The other way for the drought and heat wave to end would be if the seasonal monsoons in the Southwest can help erode the dome, she said.

"It just nibbles away at it," Knapp said. "But it's really, really slow progress on that."

Another chance of showers and thunderstorms arrives today and Friday, forecasters say. But they will only bring short-term relief at best. After a dip into the mid-90s on Friday, triple digits are expected to return Saturday and persist through at least the middle of next week.

Forecasting models indicate the next couple of weeks are going to be pretty hot, weather service meteorologist Kevin Darmofal said, and the heat wave may not break until the seasons begin to change.

Farmers are trying to stay optimistic, Cooper said, but he added a note of concern.

"It's not going to be pretty," he said, "if things don't change here before long."

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