Has U.S. Soil Recovered from the Drought?


After one of the worst droughts in the past 50 years hammered the U.S. Midwest crop regions last year, winter snow and April rain helped to alleviate the soil moisture issues in parts of the eastern Midwest, and many areas even saw flooding.

While soil moisture is being adequately recharged, several meteorologists say areas that are in the grips of longer-term droughts, like regions of Texas and Nebraska, need much more moisture in order to resupply subsoil areas and key aquifers. Still, the moist top soil will help with seed germination during spring planting, as long as soils aren’t too wet to allow field preparation.

In one of the more memorable Plains snows, Amarillo, Texas, which is in the Panhandle region, received 19 inches of snow in one storm on Feb. 25. Dale Mohler, expert senior meteorologist at Accuweather, said that storm translated into 1.48 inches of water when it melted.

“It was huge and it really made a difference,” Mohler said, adding that in February the region’s total precipitation was 2.5 inches, which is more than the 1.99 inches they normally receive for the whole winter.

That storm also brought snow to Oklahoma and parts of southwest Kansas, helping out the dormant winter wheat crops. Drew Lerner, senior meteorologist at World Weather Inc., said because those areas were generally frost-free, snow melt trickled down. In areas where the ground is frozen, some of the snowmelt runs off the top of the snowpack and into rivers and streams, so not all of it seeps into the adjacent ground.

In other parts of the Midwest, the series of late-winter snows and April rain helped to eliminate the drought conditions in parts of the eastern Corn Belt, from southern Illinois, through most of Indiana and into Michigan and Ohio.

The western Corn Belt is a different story. Despite heavy rain in some areas of the Upper Midwest like western Iowa and southern Minnesota, the U.S. Drought Monitor maintains that moderate drought levels persist in those areas.

The Drought Monitor release May 2 said rains and snow melt helped add moisture in the Northern Plains and the Upper Midwest. However, much of Nebraska, along with parts of northwest Kansas and eastern Colorado are still in “exceptional” drought, the most severe level of dryness listed by the Drought Monitor.


No El Nino or La Nina

Pinpointing spring weather has been difficult this year because there’s no La Nina or El Nino, two weather phenomenons that can influence weather patterns, said Thomas Downs, agricultural meteorologist at Weather2000. “Things are really 50-50,” he says.

The eastern Corn Belt has plenty of soil moisture, according to the Drought Monitor, though river flooding and heavy rainfall in some areas have delayed the start of planting. The key will be temperatures and whether or not soils will warm up and dry out just enough to allow field preparation.

The northwest part of the Corn Belt will need summer rains to help recharge soil moisture, Mohler says. Otherwise, the areas from northwest Iowa, southern Minnesota, Nebraska and into the Dakotas could see problems, especially if the summer is hot.

Lerner and Mohler said the winter wheat crops, particularly in the Panhandle of Texas/Oklahoma will be off to a good start because of the snowmelt. “Wheat doesn’t need a lot of subsoil moisture. They can respond well to top soil moisture,” Lerner says.

The recent wheat tour throughout Kansas might tell a different story. The annual event in which scouts monitor field conditions to determine a state-wide yield for winter wheat saw an eight bushels-per-acre drop from 2012.

Even though the southern Plains saw some sizable snows this winter, the meteorologists say it hasn’t made a dent in the long-term drought problems the region has seen. To do that, the area needs sustained snow and rain. “The subsoil there is still super dry,” Downs says.

Mohler again highlighted the concerns about Nebraska, where farmers rely heavily on irrigation from the Ogallala aquifer to raise corn. “Last year they had good yields because a lot of that is irrigated. But you can’t do that for too many times,” he says.

While there are concerns about drought, Downs said the situation can change fairly rapidly. “A few years ago the Mississippi River had record floods, now we’re at record low water levels.”

Debbie Carlson has focused on commodities for much of her writing career. She spent more than a decade at Dow Jones covering the Chicago-based futures exchanges. As a Dow Jones editor, she worked closely with The Wall Street Journal and Barron's in planning commodities coverage.

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