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Drought and Climate for February 2021: Persistent drought held steady in the West

by Denise Gutzmer

Drought


Drought statistics for the U.S. and Puerto Rico changed little during the month of February, with the spatial extent of drought (D1-D4) increasing from 38.27% to 38.95% during the month.  Much of the West remained entrenched in drought, with 79.92% of the region affected, after a record or near-record dry year in 2020 for Southwest states, foretelling a difficult year of poor water supplies and agricultural challenges if more storms do not materialize.  Storms eased drought conditions from the Pacific Northwest to the High Plains and across parts of the Southeast, as well as western Texas.  Patches of expanding or intensifying drought existed in California, Nevada, from eastern Montana to the upper Midwest, and in parts of Texas.  Another notable aspect of February, however, was the bitter cold snap that gripped the midsection of the U.S. as far south as Texas, threatening winter wheat lacking snow cover and livestock, especially newborn calves.   

Drought Outlook


The Climate Prediction Center’s monthly drought outlook for March indicates that drought will persist for much of the Great Plains and West, apart from areas of the Northwest.  Drought may remain but improve in southwest Oregon and Hawaii as well as in Mississippi, where drought removal is also a possibility.  Other small areas of likely drought removal are in the Northeast, a swath in Illinois and Indiana, and from Tennessee to the Gulf Coast.  Drought development is likely in eastern Nebraska, Texas and south Florida. 

Temperatures


February temperatures in the continental U.S. ranged from 3 to 12 degrees or more below normal for much of the nation from Montana to Texas to Ohio as an arctic outbreak spilled into the U.S. midmonth, threatening crops lacking snow cover and livestock, especially newborn calves.  Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma endured their sixth coldest Februaries on record, while Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas experienced their top ten coldest, and Texas and Illinois saw their 11th coldest.  Temperatures were slightly above average in California, Arizona, Florida and Maine.  Temperature departures of 3 to 6 degrees above normal occurred in Florida and pockets of the Intermountain West.

Temperatures for meteorological winter (December through February), however, were above average for the northern tier of the U.S., as well as the Southwest and Florida.  Maine saw its 3rd warmest winter, with temperatures exceeding 6 degrees above normal, while California experienced its 12th warmest winter.  Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas endured below-average temperatures. 

Precipitation


Precipitation was scant in the Great Plains and the Southwest as many areas received 50% or less of normal precipitation in February.  The Southwest was especially dry, receiving less than 5% of normal in parts of California, Nevada and Arizona.  Kansas had its 11th driest February, with records dating back to 1895, while North Dakota and Minnesota had their 12th driest ones.

The Northwest and the Atlantic Coast received above-average precipitation.  Delaware had its 5th wettest February, while North Carolina and South Carolina had their 8th and 10th wettest Februaries, respectively.

Precipitation for meteorological winter was largely below normal for most of the contiguous U.S.  Particularly dry regions included the Southwest, parts of Texas, eastern Montana and the Dakotas, where precipitation was 75% or less, and even less than 25% in localized areas.  North Dakota had its 3rd driest winter.

On the East Coast, areas from Delaware to Georgia received 150% to 200% of normal precipitation.  Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware had their top 13 wettest winters.  Other regions receiving above-normal precipitation included the Northeast, parts of the central and southern Great Plains and the Northwest.

 

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

Regional Overviews


Northeast

Moderate drought and abnormal dryness persisted from northern Pennsylvania to western Maine, with drought (D1-D4) covering 4.60% at the beginning of February and 3.90% at the end.  Slight improvement occurred in two spots in New York.  Parts of the region receiving below-normal precipitation included northwest Pennsylvania, and western and eastern New York to western Maine, where precipitation was 25% to 90% in many areas.  Wetter areas extended from West Virginia to central New York and southeastern Massachusetts, where precipitation ranged from 110% to 300% of normal.  Northern Maine also received above-normal precipitation.

Temperatures were as low as 6 degrees below normal in the southwest part of the region and increased eastward to above average in Maine and Rhode Island.

Southeast

The Southeast was largely free of drought, apart from two small areas of moderate drought in Alabama.  Pockets of abnormal dryness that dotted the region, especially in Florida and along the Georgia coast, eased during the month, thanks to a swath of ample precipitation exceeding 150% of normal that stretched from northeastern Florida to Virginia.  The expanse of abnormal dryness decreased from 21.90% to 9.21% at the end of the month, while moderate drought in Alabama increased marginally from 1.10% to 1.42%.  Below-normal precipitation occurred in parts of southwest Florida, Alabama and northern Georgia, where some locales received as little as 25% to 50% of normal. Temperatures were 3 to 6 degrees above normal in Florida, and within 3 degrees of normal elsewhere.  

South

There was a mix of drought improvement and deterioration in the South in February.  Drought eased in western Texas, while worsening in other parts of Texas and Oklahoma.  Abnormal dryness lessened while small pockets of moderate drought remained in eastern parts of the region.  Areas of extreme and exceptional drought decreased by less than a quarter of a percent each, while drought (D1-D4) expanded from 26.15% to 30.13% in the region.

Precipitation was 25% to 50% of normal in much of the region, except for Tennessee, southern Arkansas and small pockets of Texas and Oklahoma where precipitation ranged from 110% to 200% or more of normal. Temperatures were colder than normal regionwide by up to 10 or more degrees in most of Oklahoma and parts of Texas and Arkansas, but to a lesser extent elsewhere.  The bitter cold snap stressed crops, livestock and the power grid, causing lengthy power outages, which led to burst water pipes in Texas and elsewhere.

Midwest

The drought depiction for the Midwest remained nearly static for February, with an increase from 9.83% at the start of the month to 10.83% by the end.  Moderate drought increased in Minnesota, but eased slightly in western Iowa and central Illinois.  Abnormal dryness abated by 3.16% in the region as removal occurred in northwestern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Precipitation was mostly below normal, with parts of Minnesota and Missouri receiving 50% or far less of normal.  Several pockets of 110% to 200% above normal precipitation occurred across the region. Temperatures varied from 12 to 15 degrees below normal in the west to 3 to 9 degrees below normal in the eastern parts of the region.

High Plains

Drought intensified in the Dakotas, but eased elsewhere in the region during February.  Among all categories of drought (D1-D4), the area affected by drought decreased minimally from 83.54% to 82.60% during February.  Exceptional drought existed in Colorado, but decreased from 5.07% to 3.25%.  Precipitation was 50% or less of average for a significant part of the region, but also ranged from 125% to more than 200% in parts of Wyoming, southwestern South Dakota, Nebraska and Colorado.  Temperatures east of the Rocky Mountains dipped as low as 12 to 15 degrees or more below normal in the region, affecting winter wheat that had little snow cover and threatening the survival of calves born amid the unseasonable cold.

West

Persistent drought in the West remained and deteriorated in parts of Southern California, Nevada and eastern Montana.  Extreme and exceptional drought eased slightly—3.39% and 0.61%, respectively—while moderate drought increased 0.19%.  Precipitation ranged from 75% or far less of normal in the Southwest, northeast Montana and other areas.  Precipitation was as much as 200% of normal in parts of the Northwest to Colorado, while an area of western New Mexico received more than 800% of normal.  Temperatures west of the Rockies were within 3 degrees of normal, with some warmer pockets 3 to 6 degrees above normal.  East of the Rockies, temperatures were bitterly cold, dropping to 12 to 15 degrees below normal. 

Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico

In Alaska, the Northwest and Interior were abnormally dry at the start of February, with the area shifting slightly during the month, affecting from 19.40% of the state in early February to 21.20% at the end of the month.  Precipitation was 200% to 300% in the eastern Interior part of the state, but 5% to 50% in other Interior areas and southern Alaska.  In the Southeast, precipitation ranged from 50% to 110% of normal.  Temperatures were as cold as 12 degrees below normal for much of the state, but were 6 to 9 degrees above normal in the Aleutian Islands. 

Drought decreased on nearly all islands in Hawaii, but intensified on the Big Island in February as the drought-affected area (D1-D4) declined from 11.75% to 9.90% statewide.  Precipitation ranged from 5% to 200% of normal.  Temperatures were generally 0.5 to 2 degrees above normal. 

Drought expanded in northwestern Puerto Rico in February, and stretches of abnormal dryness developed along the southern coast.  Moderate drought increased from 8.77% to 17.69%, while abnormal dryness increased from 25.55% to 40.57%.  Temperatures were generally normal to 1.2 degrees above normal, while precipitation varied widely, from 25% to 110% of normal. 

Movers and Shakers for February 2021
StatePercent Area
Jan. 28, 2021
Percent Area
Feb. 25, 2021
StatusChange
Biggest increase in drought
Alabama1.563.27Moderate1.71
Idaho21.1224.83Moderate3.71
Idaho4.255.87Severe1.62
Louisiana5.879.57Moderate3.70
Minnesota24.0224.44Moderate0.42
Montana48.2556.54Moderate8.29
Nevada99.71100.00Moderate0.29
Nevada28.9840.15Exceptional11.17
New Mexico99.96100.00Moderate0.04
New Mexico99.5799.91Severe0.34
North Dakota58.2567.74Severe9.49
Oklahoma10.9314.83Moderate3.90
Oklahoma4.054.17Severe0.12
South Dakota87.1289.07Moderate1.95
South Dakota15.4949.90Severe34.41
Tennessee3.214.25Moderate1.04
Texas44.1250.66Moderate6.54
Texas28.0328.18Severe0.15
Utah97.9098.13Severe0.23
Wyoming89.8491.25Moderate1.41
Puerto Rico8.7712.41Moderate3.64
Biggest decrease in drought
Arizona100.0098.92Moderate1.08
Arizona96.5694.60Severe1.96
Arizona92.4284.67Extreme7.75
Arizona57.9653.50Exceptional4.46
California95.2084.88Moderate10.32
California75.7456.98Severe18.76
California39.4629.54Extreme9.92
California3.863.75Exceptional0.11
Colorado100.0098.57Moderate1.43
Colorado90.6588.76Severe1.89
Colorado73.1156.93Extreme16.18
Colorado24.9115.89Exceptional9.02
Hawaii19.189.98Moderate9.20
Hawaii5.622.94Severe2.68
Illinois16.007.37Moderate8.63
Indiana14.188.60Moderate5.58
Iowa34.7626.95Moderate7.81
Iowa15.7710.08Severe5.69
Iowa3.552.93Extreme0.62
Kansas49.5640.27Moderate9.29
Kansas17.1116.46Severe0.65
Kansas10.019.88Extreme0.13
Mississippi5.825.29Moderate0.53
Montana16.208.55Severe7.65
Nebraska93.6979.56Moderate14.13
Nebraska45.6123.64Severe21.97
Nebraska24.419.34Extreme15.07
Nevada93.0791.59Severe1.48
Nevada79.5876.08Extreme3.50
New Mexico82.0582.03Extreme0.02
New Mexico54.2554.24Exceptional0.01
New York6.813.86Moderate2.95
Oregon75.9071.82Moderate4.08
Oregon59.8051.11Severe8.69
Oregon25.5214.34Extreme11.18
South Dakota1.911.49Extreme0.42
Texas16.8416.29Extreme0.55
Texas5.284.27Exceptional1.01
Utah90.2490.20Extreme0.04
Utah69.9957.20Exceptional12.79
Washington12.3810.08Moderate2.30
Washington7.133.88Severe3.25
Wyoming68.1560.97Severe7.18
Wyoming25.7822.71Extreme3.07

February 2021 impact summary: Dry winter hurting crop condition in the Great Plains, poor snowpack in the West

by Denise Gutzmer

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