US Drought Monitor

(KMAland) -- Dry conditions and drought are likely to persist in western Iowa through this spring.

Following an unusually dry year in 2020, scientists are predicting additional dry conditions to put stress on sub-soil moisture in western Iowa with the 2021 planting season looming. Tim Hall is Hyrdology Resources Coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He says ample rainfall in 2018 and 2019 masked just how dry the state was in 2020.

"As you all know, it was pretty wet coming out of 2018 and 2019, and that wetness probably served very well to tide parts of western Iowa through what turned out to be some pretty harsh, dry conditions in 2020," said Hall.  "I think we didn't see as significant an impact because of the wetness coming out of the two years leading into this one."

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows the western one-third of Iowa in at least moderate drought, with pockets of severe drought in Pottawattamie, Mills, Montgomery, Cass, Adair, Audubon and Shelby counties. Areas of extreme drought are still present in northwest Iowa as well. State Climatologist Dr. Justin Glisan says 2020 was on the dry side for most of the state.

"We averaged almost 29 inches (per month) and that's a little over six inches below normal, ranking it as the 36th driest on record going back 149 years," said Glisan.  "What the statewide averages portray is that there are parts of the state, especially north-central and northwest Iowa, that we've seen the highest precipitation deficits -- on the order of anywhere from 10 and up to 18 inches at certain co-op stations."

The last time Iowa was this dry was in 2012, which included a stretch of extreme drought in 2.5% of the state. Glisan says right now, the current drought is not stacking up to be as bad as 2012.

"The 2012 drought was pervasive in its extent and in its timeframe in which it existed," said Glisan.  "We're not seeing these long-term precipitation deficits stack up yet going back two years, but we are seeing shorter-term precipitation deficits take hold, along with sub-soil deficits, so here we are."

Dennis Todey is Director of the USDA's Midwest Climate Hub in Ames. He says conditions look like the dry conditions will persist through the spring.

"Changes are unlikely very soon," said Todey.  "The drought is going to persist for a period of time.  Part of that is climatology.  Even in big winter storms, there's not a lot liquid.  While a big snowstorm can provide melt off and provide surface water, which is a positive, our soils are mainly frozen now so we need to get thawing soils before we can get any kind of precipitation into those soils."

Todey adds that the La Nina pattern points to additional dry conditions. Todey says it's important for state officials to start having conversations about what to do if the drought becomes serious.

"If we were in a situation like last year where we had a full soil moisture profile, we wouldn't be talking about this too seriously," said Todey.  "Because we are dry and need more rainfall and we have a slightly increased chance of continuing to be dry, that's why we're having this conversation.  I'm not guaranteeing that there's going to be problems this year, but we are going to have some problems because of current conditions and the potential for those does exist."

In addition to impacting crop production with dry soils, the drought may have an impact on surface drinking water in the northwest part of the state, which is particularly reliant on surface water for supply.

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