Drought forecast to linger, spread in Plains, West

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By JOSH FUNK, Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Climate experts say the drought affecting more than half of the nation will persist in the Great Plains and West through the spring and spread over more of California, Texas and Florida.

Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln released their latest predictions Thursday.

Currently, 56 percent of the continental U.S. is covered by some form of drought. That's an improvement from last summer, when the drought covered two-thirds of the nation.

The drought forecast calls for conditions to improve somewhat in eastern Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Georgia and South Carolina. But the February-through-May drought forecast predicts conditions will worsen overall this spring, NOAA climatologist Dan Collins said.

And below-average precipitation is expected this spring in most Western states and the southeastern United States.

As a result, the drought is expected to spread from southern California to cover nearly the entire state. All of Arizona, most of Texas and most of Florida also are expected to be affected.

Texas rancher Debbie Davis didn't want to hear that the drought is likely to get worse this spring. She said she's already sold off more than half of her cattle herd because feed and hay prices have risen in the drought, and now she's wondering whether more changes will be needed.

"We're trying to figure out whether this is the new normal — is this climate change? Or is this just another 10-year drought?" said Davis, who ranches northwest of San Antonio.

The climate experts didn't have any answers for Davis' bigger questions on Thursday.

NOAA climate scientist Jake Crouch said last month was the ninth-warmest January ever globally. In the United States, January temperatures averaged 1.6 degrees above normal.

Crouch said a smaller-than-average snowpack in the central and southern Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming has added to concerns about the drought. It suggests that there won't be enough water flowing down streams and rivers this spring to replenish reservoirs. But Crouch said snowpack levels could still improve in the next two months.

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