Drought eases, ever so slightly, in Kansas

The drought eased slightly in Kansas over the past week, according to a key measuring stick.

The key word, though, is “slightly.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday shows the amount of Kansas now in extreme or exceptional drought had fallen to less than 65 percent. The previous week just less than 70 percent of the state was in the worst two drought classifications, characterized by water shortages and crop failure. All of that change occurred in east-central Kansas north and east of Wichita in the wake of early March rainshowers.

“There’s been a little bit of improvement,” National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Kleinsasser said.

Yet long-term moisture shortfalls persist across the state, even in the wake of some of the heaviest snows in state history last month.

Going back two years, Kleinsasser said, “we still have precipitation deficits across much of the state – especially southern and eastern Kansas – on the order of 16 to 20 inches.”

In some of those areas, he said, the deficits are even more substantial.

While the recent moisture may not make much of a difference in the bigger picture, AccuWeather Vice President Mike Smith said, it’s been great news for farmers across the state.

“In terms of the winter wheat, I think it helped a great deal,” Smith said.

He’s given speeches to agricultural groups in Salina, Larned and Wichita over the past couple of weeks, he said, and talked to farmers from Eureka to Ness City. They were all smiling.

“They all thought the moisture’s timing and amount and the rate was all very, very helpful,” Smith said.

A light, steady, soaking rain can be more beneficial to crops and gardens than a 2-inch rain that falls in 40 minutes, he said, because it allows the soil to absorb the moisture.

“This has been nearly ideal moisture,” he said of the slowly melting snows of late last month followed by the light, steady rains of the past weekend.

The Long-Term Palmer Drought Severity Index reports most of the state – including the Wichita metropolitan area – only needs a half-inch to 3 inches of above-normal rain to reduce the drought to negligible levels.

Kleinsasser isn’t buying that. He said a more realistic number for the Wichita area is 6 inches or more above normal.

Then again, he said, it’s hard to measure drought with pure numbers. Well-timed rains can provide farmers with good crops in what otherwise might be dry years, for example.

City staff last month warned the city council that Cheney Reservoir, which supplies about 60 percent of Wichita’s water, will be dry by mid-2015 if the drought continues. Council members are mulling various options to address the shortage.

“If you get a big thunderstorm complex that affects a small localized area – say it sits over the Cheney watershed for a couple hours, you may decently replenish the lake very quickly,” he said.

But forecasting precipitation more than a few days out is difficult at best, Kleinsasser said. One thing is clear, though.

“We need a really good spring to early summer” to make a meaningful dent in the long-term drought, he said.