From USA Today (Doyle Rice):
As of Thursday, 38.4% of the continental U.S. is in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That is the highest percentage since the 40% recorded in May 2014.
In California, which emerged from a brutal four-year drought last year, 44% of the state is now considered to be in a moderate drought. That’s a dramatic jump from just last week, when the figure was 13%.
Major winter storms have mostly bypassed the West, meaning that much-needed mountain snow has not fallen, said NOAA meteorologist Richard Heim, author of this week’s Drought Monitor. This winter, snow sensors across the Sierra Nevada show the snowpack is just 30% of average for this time of year.
Extremely warm weather is causing most of the precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow. “This will have major ramifications for western water managers if they don’t get some major winter storms soon,” Heim said.
Whether California heads into another drought cycle will depend largely on how much rain and snow falls during February and March.
Further east, the amount of snow on the ground is also far below average across the Colorado River Basin, where a 17-year run of mostly dry years has left reservoirs at alarmingly low levels.
“Mountain snowpack was abysmally low, reaching record low levels for this time of year in parts of New Mexico and Colorado,” Heim wrote in the monitor this week.
Climate scientists and managers of water agencies describe the situation as a “snow drought,” driven in part by winter temperatures that are well above the long-term average.
The southern Plains has also been bone-dry, where some spots haven’t seen a drop of rain in months. In Amarillo, Texas, for example, no measurable precipitation has fallen for a record 111 days…
In Oklahoma, pasture conditions were generally poor and deteriorating and 79% of the winter wheat crop was rated in poor to very poor condition, the Drought Monitor said.
Looking ahead, drought is expected to either persist or intensify over the next several months, the Climate Prediction Center said.
“The general trend of increasing drought coverage should continue through the end of April, as most areas of drought are expected to persist, along with development forecast in parts of southern California, central Colorado, and the southern Plains,” the center said.