While fall and winter rains have brought some drought relief to areas across Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, officials at USDA have designated large areas across 11 western, southwestern and central states as disaster areas as a result of a continuing drought.
Those states include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
In the Southwest, Texas led the field in the number of square miles affected by the drought in spite of greatly improved drought conditions across the eastern half of the state and along some areas of the Gulf Coast after substantial rains in the late summer and fall of 2013 and early winter rain have fallen. In all, USDA reports 108 Texas counties fall into designated disaster areas.
Oklahoma has 20 counties that were designated as drought disaster areas while 14 New Mexico counties and 15 counties in Colorado fall into disaster designation by USDA as a result of prevailing drought conditions.
The designation means eligible farmers can qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the United States Department of Agriculture. Counties adjacent to those that are affected also are eligible for assistance.
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In a statement last week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said while storms have dumped rain and snow in the East, droughts are persisting or intensifying in the West.
"I sympathize with farmers and ranchers who are dealing with the lack of rain and snow and assure them that the USDA will stand by them," Vilsack said in the release.
While farmers and ranchers in California and Nevada are considered to be in the most advanced stages of drought, many farms and ranches in several states have been hard hit and are suffering economic hardship. Vilsack warns that the West will continue to suffer dry conditions in the months ahead.
USDA weather prediction officials warn that a limited water supply is predicted west of the Continental Divide in the months ahead. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) National Water and Climate Center (NWCC) released its first forecast of 2014 on January 15.
The NWCC also predicts normal water supply east of the Continental Divide and report they will continue to monitor, forecast and update water supplies for the next six months.
The center says it will help the West prepare for spring and summer snowmelt and streamflow by monitoring snowpack of 13 western states and providing periodic forecasts. Officials say the forecasts are designed to be a tool for farmers, ranchers, water managers, communities and recreational users to make informed, science-based decisions about future water availability.
"Right now the West Coast is all red," NRCS Hydrologist Tom Perkins said. "Early indications are it will be very dry in the western part of the West but wetter as you travel east. There are some exceptions to this, as New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Utah and southern Colorado are also expected to be dry.
"But that could all change by the end of the season. This early in the season – who knows? It always changes."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center's seasonal forecast is calling for a milder and a somewhat drier winter for much of the West and Southwest. According to NRCS Meteorologist Jan Curtis there is a very small chance for normal precipitation on the West Coast.
In addition to precipitation, streamflow in the western half of the nation consists largely of accumulated mountain snow that melts and flows into streams as temperatures warm into spring and summer.
NRCS scientists analyze the snowfall, air temperature, soil moisture and other measurements taken from remote sites to develop the water supply forecasts.
"USDA streamflow forecasts play a vital role in the livelihood of many Americans," NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. "With much of this region greatly affected by drought, our experts will continue to monitor snowpack data and ensure that NRCS is ready to help landowners plan and prepare for water supply conditions."