For the first time in months, intense drought is easing slightly in Nebraska, thanks to a series of storms moving across the Plains.
Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist, said he expects the improvement to continue but isn't forecasting an end to the drought.
“We've got improving conditions, but nothing to make us say the drought is over,” he said.
The U.S. Climate Prediction Center's spring drought outlook, released Thursday, is calling for some improvement in Nebraska and greater improvement in Iowa.
Mark Svoboda, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, said the distinction between the two states is significant. The outlook means modest improvement is possible in Nebraska, while noticeable improvement is likely in Iowa, he said.
Svoboda and Dutcher said the storms that have come through have canceled out the dryness of fall and winter rather than make a dent in the underlying drought. Intense drought has been in place since last summer.
The cooler than normal weather also has helped fend off worsening drought, they said. Plants have remained dormant, so they aren't drawing water from the soil.
Last year, spring started early with the warmest March on record. The early, rapid growth of plants pulled moisture from the soil sooner and faster than normal, creating a deficit heading into what would turn out to be Nebraska's driest summer on record.
“We're accumulating moisture, whereas last year at this time we were extracting it at an unbelievable rate,” Dutcher said.
Forecasters expect the cool spell to end in early April, followed by a sudden shift to warm weather.
Dutcher said the improvements taking place are tenuous and vulnerable to being lost if rains don't continue.
Rain would have to continue “all the way through April, May and into June to be comfortable in saying we're turning the corner on drought,” he said. “We can still have residual impacts from this drought, even if rain is close to normal.''
The underlying problem is that soil moisture remains about 50 percent below normal, Dutcher said. Continued rain is needed to replenish that missing moisture if plants are to survive even a normal stretch of hot, dry summer weather.
“Otherwise, everything will just burn up,” he said.
Nebraska officials are convening a meeting of the state drought task force Monday in Lincoln. Officials will talk about the forecast, water availability and any steps that can be taken.
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