The U.S. Isn't Nearly As Dry As It Was a Year Ago

Linda Lam
Published: June 14, 2019

The United States isn't nearly as dry as it was a year ago, as demonstrated by massive spring floods, and one area of the West has seen the most dramatic improvement.

About only 4 percent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing drought conditions on June 11, compared to just under 28 percent a year ago, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

T​he greatest improvements have been in parts of the Southwest, Great Basin and Rockies, and most of the U.S. is expected to remain drought-free this summer.

Last June, over 9 percent of the contiguous U.S. – including parts of the Southwest, southern Rockies and Plains – was in extreme or exceptional drought. This June no areas of the contiguous U.S. are in those highest two drought categories.

(MORE: Drought Coverage Drops to a 21st Century Record Low

The contrast between the areas in drought in June 2018 and June 2019 is remarkable. Areas in red on the map disappear and there are just a few yellow and orange areas this year compared to last June.

Drought conditions this June compared to last June.
(U.S. Drought Monitor)

So far this year, precipitation has been above average for much of the U.S., including areas from California into the Great Basin and Rockies. This wetter pattern helped to reduce and eliminate drought in those regions.

In the higher elevations of the West, precipitation fell as snow. As of June 13, the snow water equivalent in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the Sierra remains well above average with some areas more than 1,000 percent higher than average for mid-June, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The percentages are exceptionally high in some areas because there is usually little snow left at this point.

Climatologist Becky Bolinger from the Colorado Climate Center notes that the peak snowpack occurred in Colorado around the time it typically does, but the difference this year is that as of June 10 there was 43 percent of the snowpack left. In an average year there is about 6 percent remaining. This is due to the above-average snow that accumulated, the late-season snow and colder-than-average temperatures in late spring.

Warmer temperatures are now causing all this snow to melt and rivers are rising. The Rio Grande River in southern Colorado, specifically in Rio Grande and Mineral counties, is closed to all vessels and watersport activity due to its high levels, the Denver Post reports. Some recreation sites and campgrounds are also closed, and people are urged to stay away from the river's edge.

Del Norte Police Chief Robert Fresquez told the Colorado Sun that, "with the river as high and fast as it is now, you fall in and you are not getting out." The Rio Grande River near Del Norte is expected to reach minor flood stage at times over the next few days.

Conditions could worsen as there is still substantial snowpack to melt and heavy rain or thunderstorms are possible.

Drought Changes Are Not Just in the Southwest

Soil moisture across a good chunk of the U.S. is above average, which means that the ground is wetter than usual for this time of year. This includes not just California into the Southwest and Great Basin but much of the Plains, Midwest and East. Flooding has been extensive in parts of the central U.S., including the Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi River basins.

However, drier-than-average conditions began to emerge in the Southeast this spring and drought conditions have developed from northern Florida and parts of Alabama into the eastern Carolinas. Recent rainfall has reduced some of the drought conditions in this region.

Soil Moisture Compared to Average
(NOAA's Climate Prediction Center)

The Northwest and the far northern Plains are also drier than average.

The Northwest experienced less rain and snow so far this year. The track of storms shifted a bit farther south this year, which allowed heavier precipitation to pile up in California and the Southwest and to miss missing the Northwest.

Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have seen one of the ten driest year-to-date on record. The snow water content in the snowpack is less than 50 percent of average as of June 13. This lack of precipitation allowed drought conditions to increase, particularly in western and northern Washington and northern Idaho.

(MORE: Alaska's Wettest Region Is Experiencing Extreme Drought

Summer Drought Outlook

The lack of drought in the contiguous U.S. heading into the hottest time of year is encouraging.

NOAA expects wetter-than-average conditions to continue through the summer from the interior West into the Plains, Midwest and mid-Atlantic.

The drought outlook from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center indicates that drought improvement or removal is expected in parts of New Mexico, northeastern Arizona and northern Wyoming through the end of August.

U.S. Summer Drought Outlook
(NOAA's Climate Prediction Center)

However, western Washington and northwestern Oregon will likely see drought persist or develop. Portions of southern Georgia and southeastern South Carolina may also see drought conditions persist.

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