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Drought and Climate for February 2020: Drought expanded in California, worsened in South Texas

by Denise Gutzmer

Drought


In February, drought intensified in parts of the U.S. where winter storms failed to materialize to deepen snowpack, notably in California, Oregon and Nevada.  Abnormal dryness decreased by 2.17 percent to encompass 20.9 percent of the country, while various levels of drought (D1-D4) increased less than one percent.  South Texas also experienced a particularly dry month, although February is typically dry in that area.  Drought improved in parts of the Pacific Northwest, parts of the West and northeastern Texas. 

Drought Outlook


According to the Climate Prediction Center, drought is expected to persist in March in parts of the Pacific Northwest, California, Idaho, the Four Corners region into western Kansas, and South Texas.  Areas of drought are expected to remain, but improve, or be removed in Texas and the Florida Panhandle.  Drought development is anticipated along the West Coast and in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas.

Temperatures


February was a warm month for the eastern U.S., with much of the region experiencing temperatures 4-6 degrees above normal, with pockets of the Mid-Atlantic seeing temperature departures of 8 degrees above normal.  Parts of California, north to Washington, and east to North Dakota also enjoyed warm temperatures roughly 4-6 degrees above normal.  The country’s cool spot was in eastern Idaho, western Wyoming and Colorado, where temperatures were 4-10 degrees below normal. 

Precipitation


Precipitation across the U.S. was a mix of extremes during February.  In parts of California and coastal Oregon, precipitation was low, with deficits of 3-12 inches at a time of year that is typically the wettest.  At the other end of the spectrum, portions of the Southeast received 3-9 inches above normal, with parts of Mississippi and Alabama receiving as much as 12 inches above normal.  For much of the country, February precipitation was within 3 inches 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

Temperatures in the Northeast were on the warm side in February, ranging 2-6 degrees above average for the most part, with even warmer pockets of 6-8 degrees above normal in parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  Precipitation in the region was slightly below normal at 75 percent of average in southeastern Pennsylvania up along the Atlantic Coast to Maine.  Southern West Virginia received 200-400 percent of normal, with a swath of moisture extending north through western New York.  No drought existed in the Northeast at the end of February.

Southeast

In the Southeast, temperatures were about 2-4 degrees above normal in most areas, but were 6-8 degrees above normal in parts of Virginia and North Carolina.   The Southeast was also relatively wet, seeing precipitation 150-400 percent of normal for much of the region, apart from Florida.  Dry conditions persisted in Florida and abnormal dryness expanded, where rainfall was 50-75 percent of normal during the dry season.  The only drought in the Southeast was in Florida.

South

Temperatures in the South were cooler in Texas and warmed to the east in Tennessee.  In parts of Texas, temperatures were 2-4 degrees below normal, and temperatures in the eastern half of Tennessee were 2-4 degrees above normal.  Oklahoma had a hot spot in the south that was 6-8 degrees above normal.  South Texas was unusually dry, experiencing departures of 5-75 percent of normal rainfall.  The Texas Panhandle and central Oklahoma were also dry with precipitation 50-75 percent of normal, while wetter conditions existed in northeast Texas, southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana.  Much of Tennessee was wet and received 150-400 percent of normal rainfall.  The southern reaches of Texas had abnormal dryness to extreme drought at the end of February, while southwest Oklahoma and the panhandle had areas of moderate drought.

Midwest

Temperatures were mixed in the Midwest in February.  Minnesota was coolest, seeing temperatures 2-6 degrees below normal in parts of the state.  Wisconsin, northern Iowa and parts of Missouri were also up to 2 degrees below normal.  Eastern parts of the region were 2-4 degrees warmer than normal.  The northern two-thirds of the region was drier than normal, roughly 5-75 percent below normal, while the southern part of the region was wet, receiving up to 200 percent of normal rainfall.  No drought existed in the Midwest at the end of the month.

High Plains

The High Plains saw average February temperatures across much of the region, with western North Dakota experiencing temperatures 2-4 degrees above normal.  Wyoming and Colorado were chillier, with temperatures up to 10 degrees below normal in spots.  Precipitation was particularly low from eastern North Dakota to northern Kansas where precipitation was 2-25 percent of normal.  Northwestern Wyoming and eastern Colorado, at the other extreme, received 150-800 percent of normal precipitation.  Much of southern Colorado into western Kansas was swathed in moderate drought with patches of severe drought.

West

Temperatures in the West were mixed, being 4-6 degrees above normal from parts of California to Washington and east to Montana.  Unusually cold temperatures existed in eastern Idaho, western Wyoming and northern Colorado, where departures were as much as 4-10 degrees below normal. 

Precipitation was far below normal in California, ranging from 2-25 percent of normal as numerous cities saw no rain for the month, allowing moderate drought to return and abnormal dryness to expand.  Much of the Intermountain West was also dry, seeing 5-25 percent of normal precipitation.  Some areas of the West received abundant precipitation in February, with 400-800 percent occurring from Montana south to New Mexico.  Drought persisted in the Four Corners region and developed along the West Coast, particularly in California. 

Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico

In Alaska, February was colder than usual with precipitation roughly normal, apart from the Southeast where temperatures were up to 3 degrees warmer than average with snowfall up to 16 inches above average.  Abnormal dryness was removed from the Anchorage area. 

Hawaii had a slightly warm, dry February with temperatures mostly within 2 degrees of normal in most places.  Rainfall, however, was low on the Big Island, with deficits of up to 5 inches.  Parts of Oahu, Molokai and Lanai had deficits of 1-2 inches.  Drought intensified slightly on Molokai, Maui and the Big Island.

Puerto Rico was warm in February with temperatures ranging from normal to 3 degrees warmer than average.  Precipitation was largely normal to slightly above normal with a couple of areas seeing departures of 4.5-7.5 inches above average in the northeast.  Abnormal dryness persisted in the northwest part of the island.

Movers and Shakers for February 2020
StatePercent Area
Jan. 28, 2020
Percent Area
Feb. 25, 2020
StatusChange
Biggest increase in drought
Oregon26.1831.83Moderate5.65
Texas0.572.66Extreme2.09
Biggest decrease in drought
Arizona23.0021.89Moderate1.11
Arizona14.6514.02Severe0.63
Colorado51.1942.77Moderate8.42
Florida4.153.64Moderate0.51
Hawaii8.103.06Moderate5.04
Hawaii4.130.56Severe3.57
Idaho18.138.88Moderate9.25
Kansas8.686.03Moderate2.65
Kansas3.932.02Severe1.91
New Mexico31.9028.52Moderate3.38
New Mexico11.8011.40Severe0.40
Oklahoma8.034.66Moderate3.37
Oklahoma0.850.84Severe0.01
Texas34.0919.79Moderate14.30
Texas11.9210.95Severe0.97
Utah55.7253.83Moderate1.89
Utah2.381.33Severe1.05
Washington27.8619.49Moderate8.37

February 2020 impact summary: Dry winter meant return of drought to California

by Denise Gutzmer

As February turned out to be historically dry for California, drought returned to the Golden State and expanded in parts of the Southwest.  Southern Texas also dried out at a time of year when little rainfall is typically received, but plentiful rain in eastern Texas eased dryness. 

During February, the NDMC added 22 impacts to the Drought Impact Reporter, with most of those for Texas where the dryness affected agriculture.  California had the second most impacts as the landscape dried out, increasing the fire danger and raising concern about the upcoming fire season. 

 

Southern Texas ag sees challenges, state of disaster declarations

Drought persisted in Texas through February, with southern parts of the state most affected.  Dry conditions meant pasture, rangeland and winter wheat needed moisture, according to Texas AgriLife Today.  In South Texas, hay was in short supply and some producers ran out.  Supplemental feeding of livestock continued, while some ranchers hauled water and culled herds. 

On Feb. 6, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for six counties in Central Texas, which faced a threat of imminent disaster, as reported in KXXV News Channel 25 in Waco.  In January, 17 Central Texas counties received similar declarations.

 

California’s dry landscape heightens potential for harsh fire season

Winter storms missed California in January and February, allowing the state to dry out and snowpack in the Sierra Nevada to stagnate at a time of year that is typically the wettest.  February turned out to be one of the driest ones on record for the state, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.  Abnormal dryness and moderate drought expanded considerably, drying out fields and pastures and increasing the fire danger. 

Livestock producers count on rainfall to encourage pasture growth to feed their livestock and suffer when rain is low.  Northern California ranchers with unirrigated pastures were already giving their cattle supplemental feed as grasses dried out months earlier than usual, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Supplemental feeding does not typically begin until April or May.

In San Benito County, grass growth was slow, which drove up feed costs, and cattle were underweight, per KSBW-TV Salinas.  Grass on Napa County hillsides was just four to five inches tall, compared to being two to three feet in height in the spring of 2019, according to the Napa Valley Register

Dry conditions have raised concern about the fire season starting early and being more severe.  In early February, there were numerous escaped debris burns in Northern California, keeping firefighters busier than normal, per KRCRTV.com in Redding.  By Feb. 26, state firefighters had battled 280 small fires, compared to just 85 by that time in 2019, as reported by KRON 4 in San Francisco.  In a rare February event, the U.S. Forest Service put out a fire at the 4,000-ft. level, where snow ought to cover the landscape at this time of year.

 

Oregon faces water shortage, slowed tree growth

Most of Oregon was abnormally dry in February, with nearly 43 percent of the state in moderate drought toward the end of the month.  Water storage was low at Wickiup Dam, which has not recovered from the 2015 drought when the area received record low snowpack, per the Bend Bulletin.

As of Feb. 6, 2020, Wickiup was at 57 percent of capacity and will likely end the winter season at approximately 150,000 acre-feet, or about 25 percent below its 200,000 acre-feet capacity, meaning irrigators in Jefferson County will experience water shortages again in 2020.  The reservoir has only completely refilled once since the very poor snowpack in 2015.

In western Oregon, increasing soil temperatures and low soil moisture were slowing the growth rate of trees by 2 percent, threatening commercial timber operations, per Capital Press in Salem.  Affected trees may stop growing altogether within 50 years.  Hemlock trees at lower elevations were most affected by drought as their growth rates have been slowing since the late 1970s.

 

Hay supplies low after fall flash drought

The flash drought that gripped parts of the eastern U.S. in late summer/early fall 2019 left producers feeding hay early as pastures went dormant and hay fields did not yield much hay for winter feeding.  In Ohio, the hay supply was the fourth lowest in 70 years, and the yields were the worst since the 2012 drought, per NBC 4 WCMH-TV in Columbus.

Virginia farmers were in similar straits after drought reduced hay production and forced them to begin feeding hay early, cutting into winter supplies, according to the Culpeper Star-Exponent.  Many farmers were searching for hay to purchase in state, but were finding that they had to purchase from neighboring states.  Some parts of Virginia had adequate supplies, however.  Hay prices were also higher than normal.  Many pastures did not recover well after the drought, meaning farmers will have to feed longer than usual in spring 2020.

 

For more details, please visit the Drought Impact Reporter.

The images above summarize information from the Drought Impact Reporter.