Nebraska has been at the epicenter of the drought of 2012, and its impacts will intensify if it lasts through the winter, as is forecast, say climatologists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's National Drought Mitigation Center.
"The previous five years all had above-normal precipitation, the wettest period in recorded history," says Michael J. Hayes, the center's director. "For Nebraska, it was unprecedented. We came into 2012 with a full hydrological system--rivers, streams, reservoirs and groundwater. When you're talking major droughts, this is not a multi-year drought. As we look ahead to 2013, we don't have that margin built into our hydrological system, so we're in pretty dire straits."
Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming are all on track to record their driest year on record in 2012, Hayes says, and the country as a whole is having its hottest year on record.
The Climate Prediction Center says the drought in the Plains is likely to continue at least through February, and recovery will take time.
"In Nebraska and the central Plains, we've started seeing the drought feeding off itself, with the dry soils and dry air not allowing precipitation events to develop as usual," says Brian Fuchs, drought center climatologist. "With the lack of moisture, we're more like a desert environment. It warms up fairly quickly during the day, but drops quickly at night."
Al Dutcher, state climatologist, says that the chances of getting a wet enough winter to bring moisture levels back to normal are only 10 to 20%.
"When we do have precipitation, very little will go to runoff," Fuchs says. "Those soils are going to act as a big sponge. They're just going to take in a lot of the moisture. We'll continue to see problems of stock ponds, smaller lakes and streams dropping. The hydrologic drought hasn't reared its head, but it's there, as we are seeing more water systems under stress."
"Typically when farmers are done irrigating, you will see the water in the Platte percolate back through the basin," Fuchs said. "We did see that response but it was very minimal and that was even with the irrigation season ending sooner than usual. The channels are tiny, with these very small threads of water in eastern Nebraska."
Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some areas, groundwater levels are declining, which could affect well owners. "I would see that exponentially increasing if we stay dry in 2013," Hayes says. "There's a public health issue when homes don't have water." Although rural residents may be accustomed to hauling water occasionally, Hayes noted that it could be a real hardship for some, such as older people living alone.