A rancher loads hay to feed his cattle in Hygiene, Colo. Drought has cut hay… (Greg Lindstrom, Longmont…)
WASHINGTON — Much of the West continues to struggle with unusually dry conditions, raising the prospect of another year of wildfires, stunted crops and unnavigable stretches of river in various parts of the country, according to a federal assessment.
More than two-thirds of the country is under abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions, "which, although serious, is a slight improvement since fall 2012," said the National Drought Early Warning Outlook.
While the report said the drought was over in most of the nation east of the Mississippi River, the portion of the country still facing drought — most of the West and Florida — should expect it "to persist or intensify."
"The 2012-2013 drought has serious implications for agriculture, navigation, recreation and municipal water supplies, costing the nation at least $35 billion in economic losses," said the outlook, which was developed by a federal interagency group and issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A growing body of research suggests that extreme weather patterns such as drought are being driven by climate change. As a result, federal, state and local agencies are trying to prepare for protracted drought in different parts of the country.
There are "webinars" for Great Plains ranchers to raise livestock in drought conditions, and handbooks for cities to make them "drought-resilient." In Thebes, Ill., the Army Corps of Engineers is blowing up rock formations in the Mississippi River to make it navigable when the water is low. Emergency management staff members in Texas are readying for the possibility that some communities might run short of water, said Veva Deheza of NOAA.
NOAA predicted that most of the United States would have higher-than-usual temperatures over the next three months and that much of the West, down through Texas, the Gulf Coast and the Southeast would have below-normal precipitation.
Snowpack in several river basins in Colorado, Wyoming and Mew Mexico is "less than 50% of normal," the outlook said. If the snowpack does not recover in the next two months, farms and municipalities in California and other Western states could face considerable challenges this summer.
The Interior Department identified areas of concern for greater wildfire risk, including Upper Plains states like the Dakotas and Montana; the Southwest; Florida; and eastern Colorado down into Oklahoma and Texas.
Easing of the drought in much of the corn belt east of the Mississippi suggests that the corn yield could rise this year. The outlook projects 163.5 bushels per acre, weather-adjusted, compared with 123.4 last year. But the most critical factor for the country's corn harvest will be the weather during early planting in the spring and in July, the report said.
Still, most of the country's cattle lands and hay and winter wheat fields are experiencing drought.
Efforts to monitor and respond to the drought might be complicated if deep spending cuts under a federal budget "sequester" go into effect in a week, contributors to the outlook said. Federal agencies are looking at the kind of monitoring and data collection they might have to mothball if the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts take effect.