ST. LOUIS – The blanket of snow covering much of the Great Plains after two big storms in less than a week may provide some relief for parched areas, but it’s no “drought-buster,” experts said Tuesday.
States such as Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma have been among the hardest hit by the drought that at one point covered two-thirds of the nation. Now, they’re buried under snow from two storms just days apart that dumped nearly 20 inches on Wichita, Kan., and more than a foot in parts of Oklahoma, Nebraska and other Plains states.
The snow may help ease the drought some, but it’s unlikely to have a big impact because it’s sitting largely on frozen ground, especially in the upper Plains. As snow on the surface melts, the water is likely to run off into rivers and streams instead of soaking into the rock-hard ground.
That’s good news for those who depend on the many rivers and lakes that are near historic lows because of the drought. But it does little to help farmers who need the moisture to soak into the soil so they can grow plants, said Brian Fuchs, of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.
“It’s welcome relief, and maybe it’s going to start trending us in a positive way,” Fuchs said of the snow. “But it’s not the drought-buster that some would hope.”
Even if all the snow melted straight into the ground, it wouldn’t break the drought. A foot of snow equals about an inch of rain, and parts of the Plains are about 20 inches short of precipitation, even after the storms, Fuchs said.
The drought that settled over much of the middle of the country last spring hasn’t let up in the Plains. Big portions of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas are still in exceptional or extreme drought, the most severe classifications listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in its latest crop condition report offered a glimpse of what that has done to the winter wheat crop: In Kansas, 36 percent of wheat fields are listed as in poor or very poor condition. Half of the crop in Nebraska is poor or very poor, and in Oklahoma, 54 percent is poor or very poor.
Winter wheat is planted in the fall, when dry soil made it difficult for seeds to germinate, and needs a blanket of snow to protect it. This year’s snows came late.
David Cleavinger, a wheat producer near Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, was happy to finally see the 10 inches of snow now covering his fields.
“It won’t be enough to produce really good crops, but it’ll produce some,” Cleavinger said. “But also you’ll get spring rains.”
Texas could use a wet spring after two years of drought. The state just had the third-driest two-year span its history, getting just 71 percent of normal rainfall in 2011 and 2012 combined.
Kansas needs more precipitation, too, even after taking the brunt of the winter storms. Farmer Dean Stoskopf has his fingers crossed that the 900 acres of winter wheat he planted in western Kansas will come in strong. He spent part of Tuesday working on ground that was a pond before the drought dried it up. Now, it’s just a place where Stoskopf’s cattle can get some shelter from the brisk prairie wind.
Stoskopf figures he got about 14 inches of snow last week and maybe 3 inches Monday – perhaps the equal of an inch-and-a-half of rain.
Experts said it can take months or years for pastures and rangeland to recover from such conditions and provide good forage for livestock.
“If we get one more storm like this, with widespread 2 inches of moisture, we will continue to chip away at the drought,” said Mike Umscheid, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Dodge City, Kan., “but to claim the drought is over or ending is way too premature.”
Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kan., and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, contributed to this report.