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Spring Forecast: Dry and Drier Environment News Service 10:15 a.m. 15.Mar.2000 PST WASHINGTON, D.C -- The United States is in the midst of a worsening drought following the warmest winter on record, the National Weather Service warned this week.
This threat to individuals, agriculture, and industry throughout the country brought together representatives of the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Interior, as the federal government issued its first spring drought forecast.
"The news is not good," said Commerce Secretary William Daley. "The drought of 1999 remains with us in the new century -- and our data indicate drought conditions are probably going to get worse before they get better."
Last year's National Weather Service (NWS) climate forecast anticipated drier conditions in the southern United States. "This year, for the first time, we are issuing a drought forecast," said NWS Director Jack Kelly. "We are able to do this because of the advances made by the climate research community."
Several southern states experienced their driest February on record, and the spring drought outlook released Monday appears bleak.
"The La Niqa pattern which has dominated the United States for the past two years has created a serious moisture deficit in many areas," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Director D. James Baker. "This could seriously impact farmers, water resource managers, navigation interests, and the tourism industry. Forewarned is forearmed."
The spring drought forecast says the dry conditions are going to persist and, in some areas, intensify. Hardest hit will be southern Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia in the south; and Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana in the north central United States.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman noted, "We saw last summer just what a drought can do to farmers. Looking to the future, we need to be ahead of the curve, prepared for dry weather when it comes and equipped with the mechanisms that will protect farmers and prevent widespread losses."
Drought is a serious threat to the health, well-being, and economy of the nation, causing economic and social losses comparable to those of major hurricanes. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama all experienced their driest February in 106 years. Already this year wildfires have claimed 208,000 acres -- almost four times the losses at this time last year. NOAA says the areas impacted by the drought of 2000 parallel the drought of 1988, which was the most costly weather disaster in history with an estimated $40 billion in losses. The average annual cost of droughts is over $6 billion.
Last summer's drought may move westward this summer, said U.S. Geological Survey Director Charles Groat. Continuing lower than normal streamflow and low groundwater levels may signal a return and worsening of last years drought, Groat warned.
"This is the time of year where streamflow conditions should be about normal, but in the eastern half of the country, we're anywhere but that," Groat said. "We should be seeing ground-water recharge taking place now and we're not seeing that either."
The drought is moving west, Groat said, and is clearly already into the Appalachians and the southeast. These are areas that did not receive a moisture recharge from the last year's busy hurricane season, as the eastern seaboard did. USGS scientists are also seeing near record low streamflows in the Ohio Valley, the center of the Midwest, the Lower Mississippi River Basin, and into the southeast.
"Think of it as not having enough money to put into the bank," Groat said. "In some areas of the country, we don't have enough water now to put into our groundwater bank. This is the time of year we are supposed to be recharging our savings -- our groundwater and reservoirs. That hasn't happened this winter and so we don't have the buffer we need when we start making withdrawals in the summer."
John "Jack" Kelly, Jr., National Weather Service Director, answers questions at the American Meteorological Society Broadcasters Conference in June 1999 "When our dry summer hits, we may not have enough in savings to get through without problems," Groat continued. "We anticipate additional drought problems in the months ahead based on the low volume of surface and ground water we're seeing now."
NOAA scientists also point out drier than normal conditions mean a reduced possibility of significant river flooding this spring. However, Kelly cautions communities to be on guard against severe weather and flash flooding.
Copyright Environment News Service
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 15, 2000