LINCOLN, Neb. -- Drought in western Nebraska continues to be a problem with Lake McConaughy sitting 5 feet lower than it was at this time last year, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln state climatologist said.

To relieve the drought across western Nebraska and keep eastern Nebraska from dipping back into a drought, the next two months' precipitation will be critical, said Al Dutcher, state climatologist in the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"The west continues to be problematic because it didn't recover from last year and its risk is much more enhanced," Dutcher said.

However, the chances of drought in the eastern half of the state are much lower. About the eastern two-thirds of Nebraska has good sub-soil moisture levels, he said.

"Most areas show the top four feet of the profile showing 6 to 8 inches which is close to a full profile," he said.
That was due to wet conditions August through September and the third wettest December on record.

"If this continues we will go into a full profile for the planting season," he said. "Even if eastern Nebraska doesn't receive any rain and enters a drought situation, it's going to take at least until the second half of June until that moisture is extracted. The risk of drought problems is pretty low for eastern Nebraska."

However, that doesn't mean it can't happen, he said.

"We've had June without precipitation, but in statistical terms, chances for drought are low across the cornbelt," he said. "The western part of the state is a nightmare, though."

Storms that came out of the southwest had no impact on the western part of the state and the December snow storm that hit the Front Range of the Rockies did not have much of an impact on the inter-mountain region.

"It was basically a Front Range event," he said.

The latest Natural Resources Conservation Service stream flow predictions are in the 50 to 70 percent range of normal in the northern Platte River basin, which feeds Lake McConaughy.

"Things do not look promising, but one or two late snows, which are wetter, could change all that," he said.
However, even if snowfall does match last year's, McConaughy is still going to be in worse shape because it is 5 feet lower than at this time last year.

In the Panhandle, there already have been reports of blowing dust problems and in the Scottsbluff area, there is about 1.5 inches of available moisture in the profile, Dutcher said.

Grasshoppers, pasture and hay shortages also could become a threat in the central Sandhills and southwest Nebraska this summer if it doesn't see moisture in April and May.

"It's going to take very wet conditions through spring to get them back to normal," he said.

The southern branch of the Platte has done well, and flows should continue throughout Nebraska at least through the spring months.

The Republican River Basin is difficult to call, Dutcher said.

He said with the heavy snowfall in eastern Colorado, he was expecting some increases on the basin, but most of it was lost and recovery doesn't look promising.

"Maybe with additional precipitation events we could see some improvement, but that remains to be seen," he said.

The El Nino weather pattern present across the U.S. this winter also has moved out and there are signs of a La Nina weather pattern moving in, he said.

The El Nino event brought December precipitation and instead of causing storms to move into California and the Pacific northwest, which is typical of an El Nino, it dropped down into the inter-mountain regions of the Rockies and then into the southern central plains regions.

"Unfortunately, western Nebraska and northern Colorado or Wyoming did not see this precipitation," he said.

And now, a La Nina weather pattern may be on its way.

A La Nina event occurs when the Pacific Equatorial Region is at least one-half degree Celsius below normal for three months. Dutcher said a colder than normal trend has started and if those temperatures hold or strengthen over the next few months then it will officially be called a La Nina.

In Nebraska, the result from going from an El Nino to a La Nina is a warm and dry fall period. It typically does not impact spring and summer.

"When you have a La Nina, you expect opposite conditions of El Nino," he said.

The Pacific northwest and eastern cornbelt are wetter than normal and the northern plains are colder than normal during winter months in a La Nina.

The last time Nebraska was in a La Nina was from 1998 to 2001.

"The last time we had a La Nina event follow an El Nino was in 1987," Dutcher said. " We had good snows during that time, but it was fairly dry in the summer. Does that mean it will happen again? No, it really depends on the jet stream activity."

Dutcher said the best chance of moisture now will be throughout this week and next with conditions warming back up after that.

SOURCE: University of Nebraska news release.