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Winter leaves the Kansas City area high and dry

Updated: 2014-02-28T05:35:42Z

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

This winter has a dry sense of humor.

For more than a week earlier this month, Kansas City area residents trudged through 10 inches of snow. Soon as it melted, extension agent Dan Lekie noticed a funny thing: No puddles on the ground. Dry, everywhere.

That 10-inch snowfall delivered just a half-inch of liquid moisture.

It had been so fluffy and light to shovel, remember? That’s because it was a dry snow. And the snow was dry because conditions were bitterly cold when it fell.

It’s been that way all winter, bringing no relief to a metro area on the border of drought.

Kansas City has been “abnormally dry” since November, according to the online U.S. Drought Monitor maintained by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

North-central Missouri is worse, in “moderate drought.” Much of western Kansas remains in “extreme drought,” or one level shy of the drought monitor’s most severe designation, “exceptional drought,” which now applies mainly to water-deprived California.

You’re weary of that term, drought. But Lekie and others with K-State Research and Extension in Johnson County warn that a season of dry snowfall — higher-than-average accummulation but below-normal moisture — might fool us into thinking that things aren’t so parched here.

“They’ve been fighting grass fires on the median of K-10,” noted Lekie, the extension director. He blamed the little blazes along the Kansas highway on motorists tossing cigarettes. But it doesn’t help that grasses in thirsty dirt are back to being crackly a day after snows and rains.

In mid-February, the National Weather Service station in Pleasant Hill, Mo., issued a “red-flag warning” of brush fires as the last of the snow cover melted and warm winds picked up. Meteorologist Ryan Cutter said some fires had spread in fields with 2 inches of snow still on the ground.

There’s a chance for light snow or sleet today, with another round of snow expected to move through Saturday night and into Sunday.

There already has been been plenty of snow since Nov. 1, Cutter said: 22.6 inches total. That’s almost 7 inches above normal.

Alas, it’s been the dry variety. When converted to liquid and added to the rains we’ve had the past four months, it comes to about 4 inches of moisture benefiting the soil.

That’s 2 inches below normal.

“Typically, drier snows come with colder temperatures, and we’ve been having these arctic air outbreaks,” Cutter said. “Dry snow tends to accumulate faster. But it’s easy to shovel.”

The ground around Kansas City could use every drop it can get before trees start leafing out, said horticulturist Dennis Patton.

“We’ll be beginning the growing season in the hole,” moisture-wise, Patton said. “When the plants get going, they’ll be under slight stress.”

Young shrubs and trees — including those planted last year to replace ones lost to the extreme 2012 drought — may need winter watering if they’re to withstand summer, he said. For trees with a 2-inch diameter trunk, Patton suggested a soaking of 10 to 20 gallons each month, poured slowly to allow the water to seep into cold, hard soil.

In drought-stricken western Kansas, many residents can’t even do that. Russell, Kan., and some smaller towns have enacted strict limits on watering plants and washing cars to preserve water supplies from drying wells.

“Things are getting dire,” said Holly Dickman of K-State’s extension office in Ellis County.

After snow fell last month around Hays, Kan., Dickman posted advice on social media encouraging Kansans to shovel the white stuff in piles around trees, shrubs and flowers. “So long as it’s salt-free snow,” she said, “that should help.”

Meteorologist Cutter said Kansas City-area property owners might do the same next time snow falls here.

After all, droughts don’t disappear in winter, and the region has been in a dry zone for a couple of years.

According to the Drought Monitor, Kansas City has been designated “abnormally dry” or worse almost every week going back to May 2012.

If federal forecast models are correct, the region may get some needed relief over the next two months. However, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center expects drought conditions in the western half of Kansas to “persist or intensify” in that time.

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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