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La Niña could mean continued drought in western Nebraska

Agriculture.com Staff 02/08/2016 @ 3:47pm

Drought in western Nebraska continues to be a problem, with Lake McConaughy sitting five feet lower than it was at this time last year, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) state climatologist said.

To relieve the drought across western Nebraska and keep eastern Nebraska from dipping back into a drought, the next two months' precipitation will be critical, says Al Dutcher, state climatologist in the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, according to a UNL report.

"The west continues to be problematic because it didn't recover from last year and its risk is much more enhanced," Dutcher says.

However, the chances of drought in the eastern half of the state are much lower. About the eastern two-thirds of Nebraska has good sub-soil moisture levels, he says.

"Most areas show the top four feet of the profile showing six to eight inches which is close to a full profile," he says.

That was due to wet conditions August through September and the third-wettest December on record.

"If this continues we will go into a full profile for the planting season," he says. "Even if eastern Nebraska doesn't receive any rain and enters a drought situation, it's going to take at least until the second half of June until that moisture is extracted. The risk of drought problems is pretty low for eastern Nebraska."

However, that doesn't mean it can't happen, Dutcher says.

"We've had June without precipitation, but in statistical terms, chances for drought are low across the cornbelt," he says. "The western part of the state is a nightmare, though."

Storms that came out of the southwest had no impact on the western part of the state and the December snow storm that hit the Front Range of the Rockies did not have much of an impact on the inter-mountain region.

"It was basically a Front Range event," Dutcher says.

The latest Natural Resources Conservation Service stream flow predictions are in the 50% to 70% range of normal in the northern Platte River basin, which feeds Lake McConaughy.

"Things do not look promising, but one or two late snows, which are wetter, could change all that," Dutcher says.

However, even if snowfall does match last year's, McConaughy is still going to be in worse shape because it is five feet lower than at this time last year.

In the Panhandle, there already have been reports of blowing dust problems and in the Scottsbluff area, there is about 1.5 inches of available moisture in the profile, Dutcher says.

Grasshoppers and pasture and hay shortages also could become a threat in the central Sandhills and southwest Nebraska this summer if it doesn't see moisture in April and May.

"It's going to take very wet conditions through spring to get them back to normal," he says.

The southern branch of the Platte has done well, and flows should continue throughout Nebraska at least through the spring months.

The Republican River Basin is difficult to call, Dutcher says.

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