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Rains Ease Midwest Drought; Plains Dust Bowl Fears Grow

The haves have had it this week, while the have-nots continue to struggle to get it: rainfall in corn, wheat, and soybean country in the nation's center third.

The top-level number on the U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday didn't change at all from last week; 38.43% of the nation is under some level of drought condition. But there was change. In the Midwest, parts of which have been inundated with rain from a large low-pressure system parked over the region, saw drought conditions ease, while parts of the southwestern Plains saw conditions dry out further.

"A weather system moving in the upper-level westerly flow brought swaths of precipitation to the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, and Midwest early in this U.S. Drought Monitor week. Another upper-level weather system stalled out later in the week as it moved across the contiguous United States, generating violent weather and locally heavy precipitation, especially along and east of the Mississippi River," says Richard Heim of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in comments accompanying Thursday's Drought Monitor update. "Precipitation was below normal across much of the Southwest, southern Plains, and coastal Southeast. Weekly temperatures averaged below-normal in the northern states and in the West, but above normal from the Plains to the Southeast."

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As of Tuesday, western and southern Iowa are still experiencing some dryness, as is much of Missouri. Stretching eastward, though, there's no drought to speak of through the Corn Belt.

"In Iowa, the above-normal rainfall helped recharge topsoil moisture, but subsoil deficits remained. [Severe drought] was deleted in eastern Iowa and [abnormally to moderately dry conditions] contracted in many parts of the state," Heim adds. "The USDA reported that soil moisture and crop conditions improved in most districts of Missouri, except the southwest district, with the percentage of the state having topsoil moisture short or very short dropping to 20%."

On the other end of the spectrum, the pocket of "exceptional drought" centering around the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles is growing in scope and severity.

"All of the drought categories expanded across parts of Texas, resulting in 'exceptional drought' covering virtually all of the Texas panhandle, and extreme to exceptional drought expanded in northern Oklahoma . . . 1-plus inches of rain resulted in the shrinkage of [abnormally dry conditions] in eastern Oklahoma, while similar rainfall amounts in southwest Oklahoma had virtually no effect on alleviating long-term deficits," Heim says. "April 27 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports indicated that 78% of Texas and 72% of Oklahoma topsoil was short or very short of moisture. The Oklahoma State research station in Goodwell reported widespread crop loss and destruction, with the abandonment of all dryland winter wheat in Cimarron, Texas, and southern Beaver counties."

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Maps: Courtesy MDA Weather Services

There's growing concern among farmers and others in the Plains states --  like in Kansas, where dust storms have become more common than rainstorms -- that the mounting lack of moisture is going to usher in a new Dust Bowl.

"We have had interesting events with wind erosion in Nebraska due to folks removing shelter belts here to gain another 16 rows planted only to lose decades of regained organic matter," says Agriculture.com Marketing Talk senior contributor k-289. "Up here, ancestors are churning in their graves knowing the toil they spent installing shelter belts [was] only to have that wisdom tossed aside with short-sighted thinking that it can never happen here. Reviewing history, I have been told, is old-fashioned, although typing on a smart device doesn't seem to still the drifting sand."

And, with few signs that conditions in that region are improving, some say the drought -- despite immense recent improvements in parts of the country -- will go on for a long time.

"When the drought area in the Panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma break, then we can say the drought is over. Until then, the five-year drought in the Southwest continues," adds Marketing Talk adviser jennys_mn. "And I see nothing right now that's going to change that anytime soon."

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