WASHINGTON - Much of the Westcontinues to struggle with unusually dry conditions, raising the prospect ofanother year of wildfires, stunted crops and unnavigable stretches of river invarious parts of the country, according to a federal assessment.
More than two-thirds of the country is under abnormally dry toexceptional drought conditions, "which, although serious, is a slightimprovement since fall 2012," said the National Drought Early Warning Outlook.
While the report said the drought was over in most of the nationeast of the Mississippi River, the portion of the country still facing drought- most of the West and Florida - should expect it "to persist or intensify."
"The 2012-2013 drought has serious implications for agriculture,navigation, recreation and municipal water supplies, costing the nation atleast $35 billion in economic losses," said the outlook, which was developed bya federal interagency group and issued by the National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration.
A growing body of research suggests that extreme weatherpatterns such as drought are being driven by climate change. As a result,federal, state and local agencies are trying to prepare for protracted droughtin different parts of the country.
There are "webinars" for Great Plains ranchers to raiselivestock in drought conditions, and handbooks for cities to make them"drought-resilient." In Thebes, Ill., the Army Corps of Engineers is blowing uprock formations in the Mississippi River to make it navigable when the water islow. Emergency management staff members in Texas are readying for thepossibility that some communities might run short of water, said Veva Deheza ofNOAA.
NOAA predicted that most of the United States would havehigher-than-usual temperatures over the next three months and that much of theWest, down through Texas, the Gulf Coast and the Southeast would havebelow-normal precipitation.
Snowpack in several river basins in Colorado, Wyoming and MewMexico is "less than 50 percent of normal," to the outlook said. If thesnowpack does not recover in the next two months, California and other Westernstates' agriculture and municipalities could face considerable challenges thissummer.
The Interior Department identified areas of concern for greaterwildfire risk, including the Upper Plains states like the Dakotas and Montana,the Southwest, Florida and eastern Colorado down into Oklahoma and Texas.
Easing of the drought in much of the corn belt east of theMississippi suggests that the corn yield could rise this year. The outlookprojects 163.5 bushels per acre, weather-adjusted, compared with 123.4 lastyear. But the most critical factor for the country's corn harvest will be theweather during early planting in the spring and in July, the report said.
Still, most of the country's cattle lands and hay and winterwheat fields are experiencing drought.
Efforts to monitor and respond to the drought might becomplicated if deep spending cuts under a federal budget "sequester" go intoeffect in a week, contributors to the outlook said. Federal agencies arelooking at the kind of monitoring and data collection they might have tomothball if the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts take effect. Theretreat would come just as farmers, ranchers and municipalities would need moreinformation about the drought.