Drought covers a quarter of U.S., thin snowpack in West

Five weeks into the year, the Agriculture Department declared natural disaster areas in nine states, from Idaho to California to Texas. In all, 256 counties – 8 percent of all counties in the nation – are eligible for low-interest agricultural loans and disaster relief programs, said the USDA. The weekly Drought Monitor says 28 percent of the contiguous United States is in drought, up nearly 2 points since the start of the year. Conditions are worst in California and the southern Plains. The drought area runs from the Pacific Northwest and California (the No. 1 agriculture state) through the Southwest and into wheat-growing Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Snowpack in the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas is remarkably thin due to a dry January in the West, said director Mike Strobel of the USDA’s National Water and Climate Center. The USDA said several snow telemetry sites in those ranges are snowless, “which is very unusual for this time of year.” In several western states, snowpack is an indicator of water availability in the warm months of the year, when snowmelt feeds streams. January ordinarily is a big month for building snowpack.

A pair of storms blew across Northern California last weekend, dropping as much as 13 inches of rainfall in some places, but “the drought picture hasn’t brightened much,” reports the San Francisco Chronicle. “The big reservoirs that provide the bulk of the state’s drinking water remained much lower than normal on Monday, as did the Sierra snowpack that fills them.” The rainy season is half over and a fourth year of drought, and rationed supplies of irrigation water for farms, is expected.