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Tallying the Drought's Impacts in the Plains

Updated: 05/21/2014 @ 9:11am

As of mid-May, half of the U.S. is suffering under some level of drought. And an unprecedented 15% of the country is gripped by extreme to exceptional drought.

To put the drought in perspective, it is affecting over half of the nation’s wheat crop, nearly half of the cattle producing areas, and one third of the corn crop.

For the High Plains and Southwest, the drought pattern has been persistent for the past several years. “Kansas continues to set the edge of the intense drought that seems to be waking up and pushing rapidly north along with warmer temperatures,” says Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center. “Soil moisture and groundwater levels are hurting well in front of the peak demand season, as the cumulative impacts of such an intense multiyear drought are already glaringly evident. The story is even bleaker in the southern Plains, where the heat and drought are even more pronounced and entrenched across western Oklahoma and much of Texas as well.”

Conditions are even worse in California were the entire state is enveloped in some level of drought, much of it extreme to exceptional. Snowpack this past winter was of 50% of normal, Svoboda observes.

Lake Mead is becoming a symbol of the drought in the Southwest; its water levels dropped to 1,091 feet (above sea level) this month.

Normal levels, by comparison, are 1,171 feet.

The reservoir provides water to 20 million people and farms in southern Nevada, California, and Arizona. Las Vegas alone receives 90% of its water from the lake.

The deep, white bathtub ring clearly visible along the rocky edges of the reservoir is expected to become wider this year.

Water levels at Lake Mead are expected to reach a new record low of 1,080 feet by next April. Downstream water cutbacks will start occurring when levels go below 1,075 feet. The lake must have a minimum depth of 1,050 feet to generate power.

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