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Drought eases in Midwest, but Texas still dry

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Soaking rain across a large swath of the nation's midsection has helped further alleviate drought conditions in some of the major crop-growing states, including Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to a weekly drought monitor. Small portions of Nebraska also saw improvement.

Snow in parts of Nebraska and heavy rain soaking Iowa have farmers now hoping for a dry spell to allow them to get into the fields for spring planting.

Much of the Plains and Midwest were seeing snow or rain on Thursday that isn't included in the monitor's report, which measures conditions for the seven days up to Tuesday morning. It is released each Thursday.

Heavy rain Wednesday and Thursday caused flooding in Iowa that washed out roads and some cities along the Mississippi River were preparing for high water.

A few regions missed out, however, including Southern Texas, where conditions deteriorated, leaving much of the area with exceptional drought conditions -- the driest level possible in the weekly drought monitor.

"The area we're still concerned with is in Texas and there was some expansion of drought," said Mike Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which compiles the monitor. "With the way this spring is developing some folks are saying it's worse than it was in the spring of 2011, which is when they entered their worse drought period."

Texas is entering its third year of drought.

"We've depleted most of the surface water that cattle would use and when we lose that capability most people just don't have any options," said Ron Gill, a livestock specialist with Texas A&M University and a rancher with about 300 cattle on about 3,000 acres near College Station in north-central Texas.

That means ranchers are likely to sell off more of their herds. U.S. cattle herds are already below 1932 levels, Gill said. Texas may be approaching all-time low cattle numbers, he said.

"We expect to start seeing more cattle liquidated especially in the South Texas area where they held on for a little while hoping it would rain," he said.

The monitor shows up to 2 inches of rain helped reduce drought conditions one notch in extreme eastern Nebraska .from the extreme drought category to severe. Between 1 and 2 inches of rain in the western part of the state helped reduce drought conditions from exceptional drought, the worst category, to extreme drought. Most of the remainder of the state remained the same in the extreme category.

Western Kansas, in exceptional or extreme drought, also saw little or no precipitation, but the eastern part of the state, which remains in moderate drought, saw a slight improvement.

The monitor has five categories of drought, from abnormally dry at the low end of the scale to moderate, severe, extreme, and exceptional.

Areas of northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, and southwestern Wisconsin moved from moderate drought to normal conditions after they received year-to-date precipitation levels three to four times normal.

"The pattern has continued to be quite favorable for regions in the central Plains and quite a bit of the Corn Belt," Hayes said. "We've seen some improvements there and the outlook for the next couple of months continues the improvement."

Iowa Climatologist Harry Hillaker noted that the past week was the wettest in terms of statewide average precipitation since June 2010. The state received nearly 3 inches of rain, significantly above the 0.78-inch normal. Stream flows largely returned to normal and many rivers and streams are experiencing some level of flooding.

Persistent wet conditions are preventing farmers from getting into the fields to till and apply fertilizer. It's particularly frustrating for corn farmers in states such as Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois who prefer to plant corn by mid-May. Planting much later can reduce corn yields.

Other areas showing improvement included western sections of Pennsylvania and New York, eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey, and the abnormally dry areas in upstate New York and Vermont-New Hampshire, which were reaching near normal conditions.

Areas with moderate drought in central South Carolina shrunk and abnormally dry areas in central Georgia and western South Carolina were moved from abnormally dry to free of drought.

Heavy rain also provided relief from Missouri southward into Louisiana. However, a few areas, including extreme southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, southwestern Arkansas and northeastern Texas, remained the same.

Light to moderate precipitation brought some improvement in portions of Idaho and western Montana southward to northern New Mexico. North-central Colorado, eastern and northwestern Wyoming, and south-central Montana all improved.

Recent snow in Colorado has helped improve the water supply deficit there. Many of Wyoming's basin average snow water content increased to near normal, as did southern Montana.

Two straight weeks of dry weather across Southern California, southern Nevada, and most of Arizona brought little change as the region enters its usual dry time of the year.