Rain, melting snow begin to wash away drought concerns

Bob Brueggeman backs down a flooded driveway as he leaves his river cabin on Bonansinga Drive. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Mar. 14, 2013 10:46 am Updated: Mar. 28, 2013 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Melting snow and recent rains have gone a long way toward helping to recharge dry soils and refill ponds and rivers in the Quincy area.

So does this mean the drought is ending?

In some locations, definitely maybe.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we've turned the corner on this for most part, though there still may be some trouble spots," said State Climatologist Jim Angel of the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign.

Angel said three straight months of above-normal precipitation in the Quincy area have helped to relieve some of the drought conditions that plagued the region for the past 1 1/2 years.

"In general, things look much better across Western Illinois and Illinois as a whole this year than they were at this time last year," Angel said. "At this time last year, we were already getting dry and the streams looked more like they do in August than they do at the end of March. This looks much, much better."

Weather observers across the Midwest have been studying the recent snowmelt and rain patterns to gauge the effect on the drought.

"We've had some pretty good rains and snows, and now it's all starting to melt and run off," Angel said. "The big question is how much of it has soaked in and how much of it has run off. That's what we're kind of wrestling with."

The U.S. Drought Monitor released a revised map this morning showing the drought situation is apparently easing in Western Illinois. A week ago, the agency's map showed all of Adams County and a broad swath of Illinois further to the north were considered "abnormally dry." Today, most of the same area is now considered to be drought-free, though some parts of Northern Illinois are still classified as experiencing "moderate drought."

As for the drought, meanwhile, some positive signs and reports have been surfacing. The weather service's "drought briefing page," updated March 8, had the following observation:

"For the first time in nearly 9 months, all of our County Warning Area (CWA) is now free of D2/Severe drought. This has transpired due to above to well above normal precipitation since the start of 2013."

But some drought conditions persist, especially in the subsurface soils still frozen in some locations.

Mike Brewer, a National Climatic Data Center scientist, told The Associated Press earlier this week that the recent precipitation "is certainly helping, because a lot of it is falling in the heart of the worst drought areas."

However, he added: "It's helping to mitigate the impacts of the drought (by helping fill farm ponds and reservoirs), but it's not necessarily helping the agricultural side of things right now. It's not getting into the soil, where it needs to go."

Mike Roegge, a University of Illinois Extension educator in local food systems and small farms, said the above-average rains in recent months are a positive sign for area farmers. Since Jan. 1, he noted, precipitation recorded at Quincy Regional Airport has totaled about 7.5 inches, which is nearly 2 inches above normal.

"It's a good indication that perhaps we're out of this drought pattern," he said.

Roegge said the drought began in July 2011 following an unusually wet June.

"It quit raining after that," he said. "That's what led to our drought of 2012."

A string of uncommonly dry months set the state for a lousy crop year in 2012, with an average of only 76 bushels of corn per acre logged in Adams County. "That's pretty poor," he said.

Angel said while topsoil remains saturated in much of Western Illinois, it's still not clear how much water is reaching the subsurface areas. "Probably, in the next couple of weeks, we'll have a better picture once we get all the soil thawed out," he said.

He said one of the biggest issues facing farmers is not topsoil moisture but subsurface water levels that can affect wells.

"Historically, those groundwater levels have always been the last thing to recover from a drought," Angel said.