Approximately 12.6% of the state is in severe drought conditions, according to the latest Drought Monitor map from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — nearly double what it was a week earlier. Just a few weeks ago, there were no severe drought conditions anywhere in the state.
Overall, more than half the state is considered abnormally dry, and more than one-third of it is experiencing at least moderate drought conditions. Most of the severe drought conditions are in Northeast Nebraska and the Panhandle.
Compare that to this time last year, when less than 1% of the state was considered even drier than normal.
An area of about two dozen counties stretching from Sarpy County all the way north to the South Dakota border and as far west as Madison County are experiencing at least moderate drought conditions. Norfolk, for instance, has gotten about 11 inches for the whole year so far, more than 6 inches below average. The city recently recommended limits on sprinkler use.
Stanton and Cuming counties are two of three counties in Northeast Nebraska whose entire area is in severe drought. The other is Washington County.
The National Weather Service said the City of Stanton has recommended its residents voluntarily reduce their water use, although it has not introduced any mandatory restrictions.
A number of Northeast Nebraska counties, including Stanton and Cuming counties, also have authorized emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land because of the drought conditions.
Joe Knobbe, a Cuming County cattle and grain farmer, said the drought conditions have added stress on farmers in his area “on top of an already rugged 2020.”
“Drought adds insult to injury at a time when grain and livestock prices are already depressed,” Knobbe said. “Early potential for high yields have dwindled as rains continue to miss us, and it is apparent now that dryland fields and fields that depend on feedlot lagoon water for irrigation will take a big hit compared to last year.”
On the cattle side, lowered corn yields could increase prices for feed and also lead to producers having to source it from farther away, which also increases costs, he said.
“These economic effects could have a lasting effect on our community,” Knobbe said.
The weather service said that during the past six months, parts of Northeast Nebraska have a rain deficit of anywhere from 4 to 8 inches compared with normal.
According to the weather service, topsoil moisture levels are now 20% to 40% below normal in many areas of Northeast Nebraska.
“At this point, it’s just so dry that (soil moisture) is not really helping any more,” said Hallie Bova, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Omaha.
Conditions are just as bad in the Panhandle, where more than 20 counties are experiencing moderate drought, about half of those with some degree of severe drought. Most of the area also is considered to be at high risk for grass and forest fires.
Scottsbluff has received only about 6 inches of rain so far, about 5 inches below average.
By contrast, areas of southeast Nebraska have seen 4 to 8 inches more than normal.
Lincoln, which has seen above average precipitation five out of the past six years, is slightly below normal for the year, but Lancaster County is free of any abnormal dryness.
Hebron, in Thayer County along the Kansas border, had its wettest July ever, with more than 16 inches.
It’s been eight years since the state has seen major drought conditions, said state climatologist Martha Shulski.
In 2012, drought was widespread throughout Nebraska in the summer. Lincoln, which saw its second-driest July and August in recorded history, had water restrictions for more than a month. The Platte River also ran dry in places.
A huge swath of the Sandhills, covering more than a dozen counties, has no signs of even abnormally dry conditions. Likewise, an area of southeast Nebraska, stretching from as far north and west as Polk County to the Kansas, Iowa and Missouri borders, is drought free.
Nebraska is actually better off than some neighboring states. Iowa has about 6% of its area in extreme drought, all of it concentrated in the central part of the state just west of Des Moines. In Colorado, 61% of the state is in severe drought, and nearly 24% is in extreme drought.
Unfortunately, Nebraska could be headed in that direction, with the areas of severe drought expanding or extreme drought popping up in some areas. The forecast for the rest of August favors below-average rain for much of the state.
“It’s certainly possible that things could worsen,” Bova said.
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Editor’s note: Portions of this story were contributed by the Lincoln Journal Star.