U.S. Drought Coverage Lowest in 5+ Years

During the four-week period ending Feb. 2, 2016, contiguous U.S. drought coverage fell to 15.48 percent—a decrease of 2.91 percentage points. This also represents the smallest areal coverage of U.S. drought in more than five years, since Oct. 26, 2010. Perhaps not coincidentally, the U.S. drought minimum of 2010 occurred in the wake of the most recently completed El Niño, which lasted from the summer of 2009 to the spring of 2010.

Since mid-October 2015, stormy weather in many parts of the country—in part driven by a strong El Niño—has significantly reduced U.S. drought coverage from 34.78 to 15.48 percent—a drop of 19.30 percentage points.

Where drought remains, mostly in the Far West, there has been incremental improvement. Although long-term concerns still include below-average reservoir storage, groundwater shortages, and tree mortality, winter precipitation has boosted spring and summer runoff prospects, improved rangeland and pasture conditions, cut irrigation demands, and reduced the need for supplemental feeding of livestock. California’s intrastate reservoirs held just 54 percent of their normal water volume on Dec. 31, and that number may not appreciably improve until high-elevation snow begins to melt in the spring.

On Feb. 2, more than one-third (38 percent) of the western U.S. remained in drought, down from 57 percent in early October 2015. Most (95 percent) of California was still in drought on Feb. 2, down 2 percentage points from the beginning of the water year on Oct. 1, 2015. However, California’s coverage of exceptional drought (D4) has fallen from 46 to 39 percent since Oct. 1. Farther north, coverage of extreme to exceptional drought (D3 to D4) since Oct. 1 has decreased from 67 to 4 percent in Oregon and from 68 to 0 percent in Washington.

On Feb. 2, drought was affecting just 11 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory, down from an autumn 2015 peak of 27 percent.

On Feb. 2, the portion of the U.S. winter wheat production area in drought stood at 7 percent, down from an autumn peak of 29 percent on Oct. 20. At the end of January, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service rated more than two-thirds of the winter wheat in good to excellent condition in several major production states, including Oklahoma (74 percent good to excellent); Ohio (74 percent); Michigan (73 percent); Montana (72 percent); Indiana (71 percent); and South Dakota (67 percent).

Source: Brad Rippey, National Drought Mitigation Center

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