Rains bring improvement, but Missouri drought forecast remains bleak

Thursday, September 20, 2012 | 8:31 p.m. CDT; updated 12:18 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 21, 2012
Crops and plants are seeing some improvement after recent rains in Missouri, but most of Boone County still remains in severe drought.

COLUMBIA — Recent rains have created some improvement in drought conditions across Boone County and the rest of the state, but the long-term prognosis for breaking out of the historic dry spell is less than promising.

The National Weather Service said in its latest drought briefing Thursday that remnants of Hurricane Isaac and other storm systems that have moved across the area returned soil moisture across much of Missouri and Illinois to near normal for the middle of September.

Still, most of Boone County remains in severe drought, according to the weather service, and an east-to-west swath that includes Columbia is stuck in extreme drought. The weather service also cited a National Agriculture Statistics Service report that showed nearly two-thirds of Missouri farm fields and half those in Illinois have poor or very poor topsoil moisture.

The recent rains came way too late to revive farmer Jay Fisher's corn crop, but it helped his soybeans considerably, he said. Fisher cut a couple hundred acres of corn for cattle feed because it was in such bad shape. He plans to harvest the rest in October and hopes to get about 50 bushels per acre. His usual goal is 150 to 180 bushels per acre.

The rain has been a bit of a boon for Columbia lawn care businesses. Casey Henage, owner of Grizzly Bear Lawn Care, said his company had to downsize during the summer because of the drought, but business has perked up in recent days and made him "extremely busy."

The precipitation also prompted the Columbia Fire Department to lift a ban last week on outdoor burning that had been in place for 83 days. Columbia Fire Department Battalion Chief Brad Fraizer cited a measure called the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which is used to determine the potential for fires based on the flammability of organic material in the ground, as a primary factor in the decision to lift the ban.

Although there has been some temporary improvement, weather service hydrologist Mark Fuchs cautioned against too much optimism. There's a good chance that the drought could persist through the winter, he said.

“I’m not in a situation to say ‘Yeah, were doing great,’ because we’re not,” Fuchs said.

Thursday's drought briefing indicated Columbia was nearly 12 inches below normal rainfall levels for the period from May 1 through Sept. 19 and nearly 8 inches below normal for the year.

According to the long-term outlook posted Thursday, above-normal temperatures are expected throughout October and through December. Equal chances of normal, above-normal or below-normal precipitation are possible during those periods. The outlook through Dec. 31 calls for continued drought with some degree of improvement.

But even normal precipitation this winter would only mask the effects of the extended dry period the area has suffered, MU atmospheric sciences professor Tony Lupo said.

"Drought is long-term," Lupo said. "Any prolonged dryness coming into the winter will be a problem."

Fuchs said persistent drought could mean real trouble in the spring. He's bracing for bad news.

“It’s most likely going to worsen than improve over the winter,” he said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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