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Widespread Drought Across U.S. Stoking Fears That 2012'S Devastation Will Repeat

By Madelyn Beck
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of the United States is in need of rain. The early signs of drought are raising concerns about a repeat of 2012’s drought, the worst since the Dust Bowl, that cost farmers, ranchers and governments $30 billion.
Western Illinois might be close to the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, but it’s the driest part of the state this year.
“We really haven’t really had any measurable rain since the middle of October,” says Ken Schafer, who farms winter wheat, corn and soybeans in Jerseyville, north of St. Louis. “I dug some post-holes this winter, and it's just dust.”
His farm is in an area that the U.S. Drought Monitor considers “severe.” Some of the nation’s worst areas of drought are in southwest Kansas, much of Oklahoma and a slice of Missouri. But several states are in some sort of drought, from Illinois to California, the Dakotas to Texas.
The worry also is widespread, considering the reach of this winter’s drought is even worse than in 2012, a year that brought the worst drought in the U.S. since the Dust Bowl and cost cost farmers, ranchers and governments an estimated $30 billion, according to the federal National Centers for Environmental Information.
If things don’t get better, it’ll show in producers’ pocketbooks and on the taxpayers’ dime — a difficult thing to swallow considering the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farmers’ incomes to be at a 12-year low even if crop yields stay high.
However, it’s only February, which is one of the driest months on the calendar. And, outside of some winter wheat, the lack of moisture won’t impact many crops. There’s still time for spring rains to rehydrate the region.
“If this was July, we'd be hitting the panic button,” according to Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel. “But in the wintertime, it's always kind of a little odd because droughts develop slowly and you know there's not much going on out there.”
A few larger rainfall events could bring areas back to normal by the time planting season comes around. That’s what happened in 2013, when the 2012 drought lingered into the new year causing conditions even drier than now.
But sudden, widespread precipitation changed things around.
“We had torrential rains in April of that year,” he said. “We had some places in Illinois that had 8 to 12 to 16 inches. I mean, it was like Biblical amounts of rainfall in one month.”
Climate change is bringing these massive, wet storms to the Midwest more often, Angel says, especially in the last four or five years. Because of that, he said that even if there is a drought this year, it likely won’t stay in the Midwest for long.
The West is another story: “California, Arizona, New Mexico, that area is getting drier over time,” he says. “And that's some of the expectation of how it will move in the future; that we'll continue to get wetter and they'll continue to get drier.”
Ken Schafer's farm is in Jerseyville, Illinois, about 35 miles north of St. Louis. It's the driest area in the state. He says he'll need at least some moisture before he plants this corn field in April, plus steady moisture afterward
Dry country
In the southeast corner of Colorado, Gary Melcher says there’s been at least 10 years of winter drought out of the last 13. The region got rain throughout much of 2017, and Melcher, who lives in Holly, says they’ll depend on what’s left over.
“We were blessed last year with some moisture so that's given us the ability to hold on and wait for a little bit of this spring moisture hopefully,” he says.
But it’s not just crops. Dustin Stein has a cattle ranch in Mancos, located in southwest Colorado. He’s a relatively young farmer, in his 30s, and started out in the midst of the 2012 drought.
He says in the roughest, driest years, farmers have to make sacrifices because there’s not enough grass growing in the fields.
“In a drought year, you’re forced to sell off your asset [cows and heifers] in a way that helps you keep your other assets alive,” Stein says, adding that it doesn’t just affect ranchers that year, but down the line in terms of herd numbers and profits.
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