This weekend's forecast of rain — if it comes — will be crucial to saving the state's dryland corn and preventing eastern Nebraska from lapsing back into drought.
“We're at a pivotal point,” said Ken Dewey, an applied climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Everything is precarious right now.
“If we can get some rain, (eastern Nebraska) can call this a dry spell and move on,” he said. “That's why this weekend is important. It will signal whether we're going back into flash drought.”
Barbara Mayes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the rain chances for tonight and Sunday are the best the region has seen in a couple of weeks.
Even at that, they're about 50-50.
“It won't give us the good, widespread rain that we're hoping for, but there is that chance we'll get some good rain,” she said. “No one has gotten very lucky since mid-June.”
The rest of Nebraska is worse off than the eastern edge, because drought hasn't loosened its grip at all since taking hold last summer.
Nearly 90 percent of Nebraska is classified as being in drought. The rest is considered borderline or drought-free.
Tim Scheer, chairman of the Nebraska Corn Board, said rain this weekend could stem significant losses in dryland corn on the east side of the state.
On the west side, most of the dryland crop has been lost, but rain would allow farmers to salvage some of their yields.
“It's extremely critical,” he said. “The next seven days are pretty important.”
In eastern Nebraska, healthy rains stopped falling about the third week of June — similar to last year's historic drought.
While the sudden absence of rain is reminiscent of last summer, Mayes said, the years are different.
Notably, temperatures this summer have been much cooler, and that lessens demand for water and eases stress on plants.
A year ago at this time, Omaha was in the midst of 15 consecutive days with highs of 95 degrees or more. And July 21, 2012, was the start of four successive days of temperatures peaking between 103 and 106 degrees.
In marked contrast, the forecast high Sunday in Omaha is the mid-80s — 20 degrees cooler than a year ago.
The benefit of cooler temperatures this summer has been apparent in vegetable gardens across the area.
Last year, no amount of watering in July could produce bountiful tomatoes, zucchini, peppers or green beans, said Kathleen Cue, horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
That's because temperatures were so high, plants weren't able to pollinate, which means they couldn't produce fruit.
This year, temperatures have been low enough that pollination has occurred and gardeners already are picking zucchini and early tomatoes.
“Temperatures are making a huge difference,” she said.
Late Friday afternoon came another indication that conditions are deteriorating. The Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services released its first report of the summer on community water restrictions.
According to the report, 11 communities have restrictions in place, mostly voluntary reductions in outdoor watering. Among them are Scottsbluff, Gothenburg and Gering.