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Drought and Climate for February 2019: Ample precipitation and cool temperatures throughout much of the West bring drought relief

by Claire Shield

Drought


Areal coverage in all drought severity categories was reduced during February.  Moderate drought was reduced from 14.27 to 10.65 percent, severe drought was reduced from 5.81 to 3.53 percent, and extreme drought was reduced from 1.60 to 0.46 percent.  Only a small portion of exceptional drought remained in northwestern New Mexico, making up just 0.03 percent of the country.  With the removal of drought in heavily populated areas of the West, the population within drought areas decreased substantially—from 31.6 million to just 8.8 million during the month.

Drought Outlook


In March, current drought areas in southern Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico are expected to improve or be removed.  Drought areas in northern Oregon, Washington, central and southeastern New Mexico, and Texas are expected to persist.  Drought is also likely to expand in southeastern New Mexico and western Texas.  The remainder of the CONUS is expected to remain drought free.

Temperatures


Temperatures ranged from slightly below normal to much below normal in the West, northern Plains, central Plains, western Midwest, and far northern New England.  In contrast, slightly warm to extremely warm conditions were found in the South, Southeast, eastern Midwest, and much of the Northeast.  Montana saw the coldest conditions compared to normal while southern Alabama saw the warmest conditions compared to normal.

Precipitation


Much of the West, northern Plains, northern Midwest, and Ohio River Valley, and parts of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, saw precipitation of 150 to 400 percent of normal, with some places picking up close to 800 percent of normal.  Many cities and counties in the Pacific Northwest, northern Plains, and northern Midwest even saw record February snowfall and precipitation totals, and many states in the West, Plains, Midwest, and South saw top ten wettest Februarys on record.  Additionally, the CONUS saw its second wettest February on record.  In contrast, northern Washington, southern and eastern New Mexico, much of Texas, western Oklahoma, much of Wyoming, the Nebraska panhandle, and southern portions of the Southeast saw precipitation between 2 and 50 percent of normal. 

Access the latest monthly drought outlook from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

The two maps above are from the High Plains Regional Climate Center.

Find these and other products related to the U.S. Drought Monitor on the USDM website.

Regional Overviews


Northeast

Precipitation in West Virginia, western Maryland, and western Pennsylvania ranged from 130 to 300 percent of normal while precipitation values in the remainder of the region were generally 70-130 percent of normal.  Temperatures compared to normal generally followed a southwest-to-northeast gradient with warm temperatures (6 to 8 degrees above normal) in West Virginia and cool temperatures (2 to 4 degrees below normal) in northern Maine.  Throughout the middle portion of the region, temperatures were generally 2 degrees below normal to 4 degrees above normal.  The entire region was free of dryness and drought throughout February.

Southeast

A very tight gradient of percent of normal precipitation was found in the Southeast during February.  Much of Virginia and northern portions of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina saw precipitation between 130 and 300 percent of normal.  In contrast, northern Florida and the southern portions of Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas only saw 5 to 50 percent of normal precipitation.  Central and southern Florida saw more variable precipitation, ranging from 25 to 200 percent of normal.  The entire region was warmer than normal, with the warmest conditions in southern Alabama and northern Florida, where temperatures were 9 to 12 degrees above normal.  The majority of the remainder of the region saw temperatures between 3 and 9 degrees above normal, with the exception of eastern Virginia, where temperatures were 0 to 3 degrees above normal.  Many states in the region saw a top 10 warmest February on record.  Moderate drought was removed from southern Florida, leaving none of the region in drought by the end of the month.  Abnormal dryness, however, was introduced in the eastern Carolinas mid-month.

South

Precipitation in the South varied greatly during February.  Much of Texas and western and central Oklahoma received only 5 to 50 percent of normal precipitation.  Southern Louisiana and Mississippi were also dry, with precipitation generally between 25 and 90 percent of normal.  On the other hand, most of Arkansas, far northeastern Louisiana, northern Mississippi, and all of Tennessee saw abundant precipitation—on the order of 150 to over 300 percent of normal.  Some places in Tennessee picked up 9 to 12 inches more rainfall than normal, contributing to Tennessee’s wettest February on record. Temperatures were cooler than normal in much of Oklahoma and parts of northern Texas (0 to 6 degrees below normal) while temperatures were slightly above normal in much of Texas and Arkansas (0 to 3 degrees above normal).  Temperatures were well above normal in southeastern Texas, far eastern Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee (generally 3 to 9 degrees above normal).  A small pocket of southern Mississippi even saw temperatures more than 9 degrees above normal.  Because of the low precipitation amounts throughout Texas, moderate drought coverage in the region increased from 0.58 to 8.38 percent during the month.  Abnormal dryness also increased significantly— from 5.04 to 28.94 percent. 

Midwest

Much of the region saw precipitation between 150 and 400 percent of normal, with an even larger surplus in parts of northern Wisconsin and northern Iowa, where precipitation totals were 400 to over 800 percent of normal.  These totals correspond with the snowiest February on record for many cities in the region.  The only locations to see slightly drier than normal conditions were those in small pockets of Minnesota and in a band extending from southwestern Missouri, through central Illinois, and into northern Indiana, southern Michigan, and northern Ohio.  Precipitation in these areas was generally 75 to 100 percent of normal.  Temperatures compared to normal created a northwest-to-southeast gradient, with the coldest temperatures in western Minnesota and Iowa (10 to 15 degrees below normal) and the warmest temperatures in Kentucky (5 to 10 degrees above normal) and southern Illinois, much of Indiana, and Ohio (0 to 5 degrees above normal).  Places in between saw temperatures 0-10 degrees below normal.  The region remained drought free during February and the small areas of abnormal dryness in northern Minnesota were removed by the end of the month.

High Plains

Drier than normal conditions were found in much of Wyoming, western Nebraska, pockets of Colorado, and pockets of Kansas where precipitation was between 2 and 75 percent of normal.  In contrast, northwestern Wyoming, much of the Dakotas, eastern Nebraska, western Kansas, and western Colorado saw precipitation of generally 150 to 400 percent of normal, with some localized areas seeing nearly 800 percent of normal.  Temperatures were frigid in the Dakotas and northern Wyoming (15 to 25 degrees below normal) and well below normal in Nebraska (generally 10 to 15 degrees below normal.  In fact, North Dakota saw its second coldest February on record, South Dakota its third coldest, and Nebraska its eighth coldest.  The remainder of the region was also primarily colder than normal, but to a lesser extent (0 to 10 degrees below normal).  Small pockets in southern Wyoming and Colorado saw slightly warmer than normal conditions (0 to 5 degrees above normal).  With the ample precipitation in the Dakotas and western Colorado, drought areas shrank.  By the end of the month, the coverage of moderate drought was down 3.31 percent to 14.07 percent and severe drought was reduced 1.24 percent to 7.21 percent.  Only 0.12 percent of the region was left in extreme drought, and exceptional drought was completely removed. 

West

The region saw a relatively stormy February and precipitation was between 150 and 400 percent of normal for large areas of the region.  Montana and the Four Corners region were the wettest, with precipitation upwards of 800 percent of normal.  Isolated drier than normal conditions were found in parts of Washington; far northwestern Oregon; small pockets in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona; and far southern California.  Much of New Mexico missed out on the moisture and saw only 2 to 50 percent of normal precipitation.  Nearly the entire region saw colder than normal temperatures.  Western Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, western New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho generally saw temperatures between 0 and 10 degrees below normal. Eastern Washington was even colder with temperatures between 10 and 15 degrees below normal.  California ended up with its eighth coldest February on record and Washington saw its fifth coldest.  Montana, however, saw the most extreme conditions of all, with temperatures between 20 and 25 degrees below normal for much of the state, leading to the second coldest February on record.  Only eastern New Mexico and small pockets of Utah, Oregon, and Idaho saw temperatures warmer than normal (0 to 5 degrees above normal).  With the ample precipitation and cool temperatures, drought was nearly completely removed from California and Idaho.  Coverage of drought greatly improved throughout the remainder of the region, and extreme and exceptional drought were left only in New Mexico.  Specifically, moderate drought decreased 14.72 percent to 26.50 percent, severe drought decreased 7.36 percent to 9.76, extreme drought decreased 3.46 percent to 1.40 percent, and only 0.09 percent of the region was left in exceptional drought.

Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico

Moderate and severe drought expanded in southeastern Alaska during February.  Moderate drought in Puerto Rico expanded, covering four times more area at the end of February compared to the end of January.  In contrast, moderate drought coverage decreased in Hawaii and severe drought was removed. Drought areas in Alaska and Hawaii are likely to persist through March, and drought is expected to expand in Puerto Rico to cover nearly the entire island.

Movers and Shakers for February 2019
StatePercent Area
Jan. 29, 2019
Percent Area
Feb. 26, 2019
StatusChange
Biggest increase in drought
Alaska2.353.74Moderate1.39
Alaska1.021.93Severe0.91
Texas1.1516.33Moderate15.18
Puerto Rico8.9132.51Moderate23.60
Biggest decrease in drought
Arizona32.9818.69Moderate14.29
Arizona18.235.50Severe12.73
California23.662.33Moderate21.33
Colorado66.3562.26Moderate4.09
Colorado41.0235.26Severe5.76
Colorado22.040.59Extreme21.45
Hawaii39.0230.48Moderate8.54
Idaho39.127.81Moderate31.31
Nevada59.1231.98Moderate27.14
New Mexico42.8442.47Moderate0.37
New Mexico32.7931.96Severe0.83
New Mexico15.0313.14Extreme1.89
New Mexico1.430.88Exceptional0.55
Oregon90.9168.86Moderate22.05
Oregon74.1131.54Severe42.57
Utah96.1064.41Moderate31.69
Utah20.953.98Severe16.97
Washington10.734.15Moderate6.58
Wyoming16.756.99Moderate9.76

February 2019 impact summary: February storms deepen snowpack, improve drought conditions

by Denise Gutzmer

February storms brought plenty of snow to the western U.S., deepening snowpack and improving the drought picture overall, while Texas continued to dry out.  During the month, the NDMC added 12 impacts to the Drought Impact Reporter.  Four impacts were for Alaska, which was suffering from a long-term drought that has reduced water supplies and hampered hydropower production.  Three impacts were reported for Colorado and two each for California and Utah as all three states looked forward to improved water supplies and easing drought, thanks to deep snow.

 

Low water supplies for Alaska hatcheries, hydropower

Years of below-normal precipitation in southeastern Alaska have reduced reservoir levels, threatening hatcheries and hydropower generation in that part of the state.  Low water supplies led the operators of the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in Juneau to move salmon fry to the cold sea in January, months earlier than usual. Water from the reservoir was too warm for the fry, prompting the earliest ever move to net pens in the sea. 

At the end of February, a hatchery near Petersburg had about 50 days’ worth of water remaining and will have to consider relocating more than a million juvenile king and coho salmon. 

With reservoirs low, some communities were relying more heavily on other power sources.  Petersburg, Ketchikan and Wrangell were almost entirely relying on fossil fuel for electricity as their reservoirs ran low for hydropower production.  Juneau was no longer providing power for its interruptible customers, meaning those who buy energy when surplus water was available.

Hatcheries the ‘canary in the coal mine’ as drought extends across Southeast Alaska, by Jacob Resneck, Alaska Public Media (Anchorage, Alaska), March 1, 2019

Ketchikan burns diesel to pay back summer hydro buy, by Leila Kheiry, KRBD (Ketchikan, Alaska), Feb. 7, 2019

 

Colorado snowpack improved

Numerous winter storms brought plentiful snow to Colorado in February, bringing the median snowpack to 114 percent of average by the end of the month.  Even in the southwestern corner of the state, which has been the driest part of the state, the snowpack amounted to 122 percent of the median, tied with the Arkansas River Basin for the most snowfall in the state.  The Colorado River Basin, too, was at 112 percent of median.  Given the severity of the drought in the region, experts warned that runoff still may be average, even with the thick blanket of snow. 

State's snowpack 'turning a corner', by Dennis Webb, The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado), March 1, 2019

 

Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan remained a work in progress through February as Arizona and Colorado continued their efforts to finalize agreements.  The aim was to complete the plan by January 31, but after that deadline was missed, states were given a March 4 deadline, which was not met.  Since then, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has requested suggestions from western governors on how to maintain the level of Lake Mead. 

Years of below-normal precipitation in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water for 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland, have left the two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, near their lowest combined storage since the early 1960s.  If Lake Mead were to fall to its dead pool, the point at which no water will flow from the reservoir, the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California would not receive any Colorado River water.

Why the Drought Contingency Plan ‘Deadlines’ Don’t Tell the Full Story, by Bret Jaspers, Arizona Public Media (Tucson), March 5, 2019

 

California

Beneficial winter storms fueled by atmospheric rivers have continued to bring ample precipitation to California since the start of the year, deepening the snow in the Sierra Nevada and refilling reservoirs.  The extent of drought was drastically reduced from the start of the year, when about three-fourths of the state experienced drought, to the end of February, when just 2.33 percent of northern California remained in moderate drought. 

While drought has improved, California’s trees continued to bear the consequences of years of drought.  The state has suffered the loss of another 18 million trees since the fall of 2017—a substantial number, but fewer than the 27 million dead trees counted in the fall of 2017, or the 62 million dead trees documented in the fall of 2016.  The return to more rainfall and less drought has helped trees resist the bark beetles that have damaged and killed so many trees.  Since drought began in 2010, more than 147 million trees on 9.7 million acres have died.  The slowing rate of tree mortality was reason for optimism. 

Time-lapse map shows how winter rains have washed away California’s drought, by Nikie Johnson, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California), Feb. 26, 2019

Winter storms wash away California drought, burnish snowpack, by John Antczak, the Associated Press, The Sacramento Bee, Feb. 28, 2019

18 million trees just died in California, continuing worries of major wildfires yet to come, by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee, Feb. 11, 2019

 

Utah

At mid-February, Utah’s snowpack was definitely improving, although the state’s reservoirs remained below normal as the snow-water equivalent in the Utah mountains ranged from 114 percent to 172 percent of average. Water managers were elated at the prospect of ample runoff and a reprieve from drought.  Continued storms were needed to bolster the snowpack through March to ensure good runoff this year. 

In an effort to improve Salt Lake City’s water supplies, the city began cloud seeding to enhance precipitation and deepen snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains, which yield drinking water for the city.  The city last engaged in cloud seeding during the 1990s, but given the past two decades of drought, city officials were aiming to diversify their water sources to withstand whatever challenges the future might bring. 

Utah snowpack packed with water, but reservoirs remain low, by Brian Maffly, The Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 16. 2019

Salt Lake's cloud-seeding efforts 'give Mother Nature a little something extra to work with' during snowfall, by John Hollenhorst, Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Feb. 11, 2019

Water experts optimistic about Utah snowpack levels — so far, by Lauren Bennett, Desert News (Salt Lake City, Utah), March 2, 2019

 

Lingering drought impacts for Missouri cattle

Cattle producers in Missouri continued to experience drought impacts that began months ago.  Drought during 2017 and through the summer of 2018 reduced available hay and grass supplies, leaving farmers to feed whatever hay was available—some of questionable quality—to their livestock.  Some of the poorer quality hay was high in nitrate and resulted in the deaths of 150 cattle from January into February.  In southwestern Missouri, one farmer lost 40 of his 70 cattle, while another farmer lost 20 cows.

High nitrate in hay causes cow deaths, by Hay & Forage Grower (Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin), Feb. 18, 2019

 

For more details, please visit the Drought Impact Reporter.

The images above summarize information from the Drought Impact Reporter.