Winter precipitation and spring rains have held off the drought that has gripped large swaths of the country over the last several years, a welcome relief for producers in the Midwest and West.

Only 27.38% of the United States was experiencing some level of drought, based on the latest weekly Drought Monitor. The most extreme or exceptional conditions are concentrated in parts of New Mexico, Texas, Montana and Idaho. 

That’s the lowest percentage of drought the nation has seen since 2020, and quite a drop from May 23 of last year, when 59.4% of the country was seeing some level of drought.

Wetter-than-normal conditions across the continental United States this winter and spring have so far made this the 37th wettest year on a record that goes back 129 years, said Western Regional Climate Center associate research scientist David Simeral. 

“Generally speaking, it was pretty wet across the continental U.S.,” Simeral said.

California appears almost drought-free, with the exception of small portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Several of the state’s reservoirs are also above normal levels, with Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville at 115% and 126% of their historical average as of last week.

Above-normal precipitation between Jan. 1 and May 21 has kept drought at bay in California as well as in Utah, Nevada, Oregon and southern Idaho, though moisture was notably lacking between October and December, the start of the water year. Spring rains avoided Washington, northern Idaho, western and central Montana, eastern New Mexico and northwestern Arizona. 

Drought is expected to persist and expand in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest through the end of August, though summer monsoons could bring some much-needed rain to parts of New Mexico and Arizona looking for relief, according to Simeral.

“That rainfall in the summertime tends to be really beneficial,” he said of Arizona and New Mexico rangelands which can “green up” with rain. He added, however, that summer storms are unlikely to refill reservoirs, which are more reliant on winter snowpack in mountainous areas.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Snow Telemetry Network, most of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and are seeing a water year precipitation index near the 29-year median. Most of Nevada’s water year precipitation index is 110% to 129% of the median, while most of Washington, western Montana and Idaho’s is 79% to 89%. 

A relatively small snowpack in the Cascade Mountains is limiting water supplies in the reservoirs that fruit growers and other Pacific Northwestern irrigated producers rely on, according to Washington State Tree Fruit President Jon DeVaney.

The snow water equivalent recorded by NRCS in four of Washington’s uppermost watersheds were below 60% of the the median. While DeVaney said the the state has received some rain, it’s more difficult to capture and store than the snowmelt that trickles down from the mountains.

“You have to do a lot of juggling of water users in order to ensure that perennial crops like tree fruit have the water that they need to keep the trees from dying or getting too stressed,” he said.

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It is “somewhat typical” for the Pacific Northwest to be drier than other parts of the U.S. during El Niño, an event marked by changing sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center said last month that El Niño is expected to transition into a “neutral” cycle later this month before potentially developing later this year into a La Niña cycle, which tends to bring drier conditions to the southern half of the continental U.S.

Drought is currently a smaller presence in the Great Plains, Midwest and eastern United States, appearing in patches across the region. The largest area of mild to moderate drought in the Great Plains is in eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, eastern Colorado and the Texas panhandle.

Moderate drought is also in spots in southeastern Nebraska, northern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, southeast Missouri, northeast Arkansas, and western Michigan. These drought conditions are generally expected to improve, or even disappear, by August 31, however.

Timely spring rains have so far set up Illinois Farm Bureau President Brian Duncan, who farms in Ogle County, in a decent position for moisture as the growing season for corn approaches. Spring rains delivered two to three inches of moisture in April, followed by a couple of inches in May. But with summer heat on the horizon, he’s still skeptical of what the season may bring.

“The scorching heat is as much of your enemy as anything,” Duncan told Agri-Pulse. “So talk to me in September and I’ll tell you what’s good.”

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This article has ben corrected to include the correct spelling of Jon DeVaney.