Drought worsened in the northern U.S. from eastern Montana to northern Wisconsin and Michigan, in swathes of California and Nevada, and parts of Texas. February storms also brought snow and eased drought from the Pacific Northwest to the central Plains and parts of the Southeast, as well as southwest Texas. Fifty-one impacts were added to the Drought Impact Reporter during the month, with 20 impacts for Texas, recording crop and livestock concerns as the state remained dry and suffered punishingly cold temperatures. California, New Mexico and Colorado received 11, 7 and 4 impacts, respectively, documenting water supply concerns as the dry winter neared an end.
Texas disaster declaration, freezing temperatures caused damage to crops, livestock
Drought in Texas continued through February, increasing the fire danger. In response, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration on Feb. 3 for 60 western and southwestern Texas counties as exceptional drought and wildfire threats jeopardized public health, property and the economy, per Insurance Journal.
Crops and livestock were also affected by dry conditions and ongoing impacts. Cattle producers continued providing livestock with protein supplements and hay where forages were limited, as in the Panhandle where wheat growth was hindered by drought and livestock were removed from wheat pasture earlier than normal, as reported by KVII-TV ABC 7 Amarillo.
While drought was a problem affecting parts of Texas, another crisis arrived mid-month when arctic winter weather brought moisture, but also bitterly cold temperatures. Snow and ice helped topsoil moisture levels a little and likely insulated some crops from severe damage, according to AgriLife Today. Cold temperatures forced producers to break ice frequently to make water accessible for livestock and may have affected early emerging generations of insect pests. Equipment, such as diesel tractors, did not operate well in the cold. Livestock needed more feed and hay than usual amid the frigid weather, leading to shortages in some districts.
California snowpack, water supplies
At the start of February, all of California was abnormally dry or in drought. A late January snowstorm boosted snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada, but more was needed to ensure adequate water supplies after a dry start to winter. The Feb. 3 Sierra snowpack survey revealed that the water content was 70% of average to date and 45% of the April 1 average, per Associated Press.
With low snowpack, water districts and communities were eager to see more winter storms, but were preparing for the likely possibility that this summer might be very lean in terms of water supplies. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced its initial allocation of 5% for the Central Valley Project, as reported by The Sacramento Bee. The figure will be updated if more precipitation falls to increase the allocation. The CVP serves farm irrigation districts in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. In December, the State Water Project announced an initial allocation of 10%. On Feb. 28, Lake Shasta, key reservoir for the Central Valley Project, was at 68% of historical average, while Lake Oroville, primary reservoir for the State Water Project, was at 55% of historical average.
Communities were making decisions about water conservation, knowing that lower than normal reservoirs meant conservation was a necessity. For the first time since 2013, the Marin Municipal Water District urged customers to voluntarily curb their water use as rainfall was low like during the 1976-77 drought, per Marin Independent Journal. As of Feb. 15, reservoirs held 66% of average capacity.
The North Marin Water District was pumping 600 acre-feet of water from the Russian River into Stafford Lake to increase supplies for the summer, a strategy that was employed by the district during the 1976-77 drought, according to Marin Independent Journal. That quantity amounts to about 30% of the normal demand of the reservoir over the summer. The district intended to fill the lake from 1,300 acre-feet, or 30% capacity, to at least 50% capacity, which will cost about $221,000.
Reservoirs low in New Mexico, farmers urged to not plant
Drought gripped all of New Mexico as drought conditions held steady through the month. With water supplies being extraordinarily low, water agencies recommended that farmers be particularly judicious about planting crops, per Albuquerque Journal. The New Mexico Office of the State Engineer recommended “that farmers along the Rio Chama and in the Middle Valley that don’t absolutely need to farm this year, do not farm,” according to a staff report.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District voted in January to delay the start of the 2021 irrigation season by a month until April 1 as water supplies were alarmingly low and portended a difficult season. The district expected to receive as little as half of the usual allotment of San Juan-Chama water.
The allotment for the Carlsbad Irrigation District in southeastern New Mexico was set at one-quarter of an acre-foot, a record low for the district, with records dating back to 1908. Snowpack and expected runoff determine the allotment, as reported by Associated Press.
The Elephant Butte Irrigation District on the lower Rio Grande River warned its customers that the allotment would be 6 inches or less as northern mountain ranges received little snow, given La Niña conditions. Allotments were lower in 2011 and 2013.
Water, wildfire worries in Colorado, more beetle-killed trees
Drought eased slightly in parts of Colorado in February as winter storms brought snow, but the snowpack was still below average, leaving communities bracing for low water supplies and possible restrictions during the coming summer. Low snowpack also left state officials reflecting back on drought conditions and wildfires in 2020 when massive wildfires charred more than 625,000 acres, per FOX31 Denver. Since 2020 was the second driest year in Colorado’s recorded history, it was expected that soil will absorb plenty of the moisture from this spring’s snowpack and reduce runoff.
Persistent drought in Colorado stressed trees, making them more vulnerable to insects. An annual aerial survey performed by the Colorado State Forest Service found that spruce beetles continued to devastate trees in 2020 as severe drought weakened the trees and aided the spread of beetle infestations, which affect about 80% of state forests, as reported by FOX21News.com. The pests have already killed about 3.5 million acres of trees, providing more fuel for wildfires, according to foresters.
Livestock, crop concerns in the Great Plains
Drought persisted through the winter in the Great Plains, and farmers were increasingly worried as spring approached. In Wyoming, holders of grazing leases and permits were warned that there may not be enough forage to fulfill the total authorized animal-unit-months on their permit or lease for the upcoming season if dry conditions persist, according to WyoFile.
In South Dakota, drought conditions and a lack of snow cover hurt winter wheat, exposing it to wind damage from blowing dirt and snow, per Duluth News Tribune. Winter wheat conditions in late January in the state were rated 32% good, 47% fair and 21% poor or very poor. Some winter wheat planted as a “low-cost cover crop,” according to the executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission, may be abandoned this spring and replanted with another crop unless well-timed rains give the crop a boost.
Dry soils and lack of snowpack left winter wheat at greater risk of damage or winterkill from the unseasonably cold temperatures in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, as reported by DTN - The Progressive Farmer. Winter wheat conditions were already deteriorating prior to the arctic temperatures, due to drought. Oklahoma's current U.S. Department of Agriculture crop condition rating of 48% good to excellent fell 13 points since January. Kansas wheat, which endured temperatures as low as -19 degrees, was ranked at just 40% good to excellent, down 5 points from last year. Nebraska wheat conditions fell drastically, with only 30% rated good to excellent, down from 70% last year. Soil moisture was very low in Texas, which may have led to damage to more developed wheat.
For more details, please visit the Drought Impact Reporter.