The worst level of drought in the contiguous 48 U.S. states reached its highest point in a year as the dryness that crippled crops, narrowed shipping channels and thinned livestock herds hangs on.
At least 6.4 percent of the region is now in the grip of “exceptional” drought, the most since the 8.1 percent recorded Nov. 22, 2011, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Some level of drought now covers 62.7 percent of the 48 states, double the extent of a year ago, according to the monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“Dry weather resulted in increases in drought intensity and coverage,” Eric Luebehusen of the Agriculture Department wrote in today’s report, which covers the week ended Nov. 27.
The drought, just about to enter its second year, has caused major economic damage from shriveled crops to stranded freight barges on the Mississippi River system to livestock lost for lack of forage.
Last year, the worst of the drought was centered on Oklahoma and Texas. Since spring, it has spread across most of the Midwest. In the U.S. as a whole, including Puerto Rico, drought now covers 52.4 percent of the land with the worst at 5.3 percent, according to the monitor.
“It’s hard to put it in historical perspective because we’re just not over it yet,” Mark Svoboda, of the National Drought Mitigation Center, said earlier this week.
Svoboda said the next few months will be critical in determining if the U.S. agriculture industry faces a second harsh growing season. Snow in the Rocky Mountains and across the Midwest would ease conditions going into next spring, he said.
Current drought conditions are already hurting winter wheat crops, which need soil moisture and snow cover to protect the roots of the plants.
“We didn’t get the September, October, November rainfall to get the winter wheat crop established,” said Svoboda, in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Winter wheat is definitely getting hammered.”
Svoboda said this is the time of year for nature “to catch its breath.” There isn’t a great demand for water by plants and moisture can be stored both in the ground as well as in snow pack.
“So far it is not favorable, but there is plenty of time to make that up,” Svoboda said. “But if we are sitting this dry at the end of January, we will be a lot more concerned.”