ST. LOUIS - The widest drought to grip the United States in decades is getting worse with no signs of abating, a new report warned Thursday, as state officials urged conservation and more ranchers considered selling cattle.
The drought covering two-thirds of the continental U.S. had been considered relatively shallow, the product of months without rain, rather than years. But Thursday's report showed its intensity is rapidly increasing, with 20 percent of the nation now in the two worst stages of drought — up 7 percent from last week.
The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies drought in various stages, from moderate to severe, extreme and, ultimately, exceptional. Five states — Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska — are blanketed by a drought that is severe or worse. States like Arkansas and Oklahoma are nearly as bad, with most areas covered in a severe drought and large portions in extreme or exceptional drought.
Other states are seeing conditions rapidly worsen. Illinois — a key producer of corn and soybeans — saw its percentage of land in extreme or exceptional drought balloon from just 8 percent last week to roughly 71 percent as of Thursday, the Drought Monitor reported.
And conditions are not expected to get better, with little rain and more intense heat forecast for the rest of the summer.
"Some of these areas that are picking up a shower here and there, but it's not really improving anything because the heat has been so persistent in recent weeks, the damage already is done," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "Realistically, the forecast going forward is a continuation of warm, dry conditions through the end of August easily, and we may see them in the fall."
Some are reacting to the drought with inventiveness. At Lake DePue in Illinois, the dangerously low water level threatened to doom an annual boat race that's a big fundraiser for the community. Hundreds of volunteers joined forces and built a makeshift dam out of sandbags before hundreds of millions of gallons of water were pumped in from a river. By Wednesday, the effort had added 2 feet to the water level, doubling the lake's size and saving the race.
In other areas, communities are instituting water restrictions and asking people to voluntarily conserve.
The drought stretches from Ohio west to California and runs from Texas north to the Dakotas. Only in the 1930s and the 1950s has a drought covered more of the U.S., according to National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
Rain-starved Oklahoma could get a brief respite with perhaps a quarter of an inch possible through sunrise Friday, the National Weather Service said.
But that won't be of much help to people like Clinton rancher Paul Schilberg, who would sell his herd of Black Angus cattle if he didn't stand to lose maybe $2,500 per head for the animals he usually buys for more than $3,000. With the grass and forage dead from lack of rain, he's been forced to buy hay.
"I'm feeding just like I would during the winter time," he said.
Nationwide, ranchers have been selling off large numbers of animals they can't graze and can't afford to buy feed for. The nation's cattle inventory, at 97.8 million head, is the smallest since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a July count in 1973.
Mark Thompson, a professional farm manager with about 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans near Fort Dodge, Iowa, said good land management practices including no-till farming could help crop farmers muddle through.
"Eastern Iowa is in worst shape than we are," he said. "Right around here, we're still at the tipping point, but conditions have improved somewhat, even though last night's rain wasn't widespread."
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared a drought emergency in all of the state's 105 counties this week and urged residents to conserve as much water as possible as the drought becomes more intense. The latest Drought Monitor report, which covers conditions through Tuesday, lists 73 percent of Kansas in an extreme drought, up 9 percent from a week earlier.
Brownback's move allows farmers, ranchers and communities to draw water from 28 state fishing lakes. Tracy Streeter, the Kansas Water Office's director, said Thursday there was adequate supply in the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lakes to meet the demand.
"Even today, the lake elevations are good, all things considered," Streeter said.
He said ranchers can take 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of water at a time on semi-trucks loaded with tanks, but that's not a permanent solution. "Folks can't do that long term because of the cost of hauling the water. If they are buying feed, too, they may just have to sell the cattle."