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County now drought-free
Fall snowstorms bring huge improvement from 2012

County now drought-free

Dec 2, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Recent data show most of Fremont County is now drought-free. Statewide conditions have improved over the past year as well.

"We were wet in September and October," National Weather Service hydrologist Jim Fahey said. "Because of the extremely wet continuations, the state climatologist gave recommendations to downgrade most of the county to that level (drought-free)."

A band running from the Sweetwater River, up the spine of the Wind River Mountains and covering the northwest corner of the county is still "abnormally dry," as is the county's northeast corner, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maps. The rest of the county is considered free of drought.

The Wind River basin was the wettest in Wyoming in September, Fahey said, when precipitation reached up to 290 percent of average in local drainages. October was also "pretty wet," the hydrologist said, and the Wind River basin saw 170 to 240 percent of average precipitation.

After a drought, abnormally dry conditions cause lingering water deficits and lead pastures and crops to not be fully recovered, according to NOAA.

How long the normal water conditions will last is unclear.

"Into the spring, there's no strong signatures either way, going above or below normal precipitation,

which is not bad," Fahey said. "That means there's a good chance (for good snowpack)."

Snowpack determines the drought situation in the spring, Fahey said.

Snowpack in the Wind River basin on Nov. 25 stood at 124 percent of average for that date, according to the National Resource Conservation Service. The Sweetwater River basin had 103 percent of average.

State improvement

Across Wyoming, 35 percent of the state is drought-free, and 58 percent of the state is considered abnormally dry.

The driest areas are only in "moderate drought," and they make up just 6 percent of Wyoming. Those include an area centered in Converse County and another patch in Teton County.

Impacts of moderate drought are damage to crops and pastures. Bodies of water will be low, and water shortages may develop.

Last year at this time, extreme drought, the second-highest classification, prevailed across 45 percent of the state. Severe drought, one step down, gripped 30 percent of Wyoming.

About 11 percent of the state was experiencing moderate drought, while 10 percent saw exceptional drought, the most severe category. Only 2 percent of the state was abnormally dry, and nowhere in Wyoming was drought-free a year ago.

Spring and fall

NOAA data shows drought in Wyoming over the year improved last spring and again this fall.

September and October 2013 were both the third-wettest in Wyoming in 119 years, according to the NWS.

"The biggest improvements since early October were noted to the southwest, where areas of severe drought were eliminated across Sweetwater County," an NWS report stated.

The whole year has been wetter than average for all sites the weather service monitors in Fremont County. At Riverton Regional Airport it was 9.01 inches, or 105 percent of average, and downtown Riverton saw 9.11 inches, 117 percent of average.

At Lander's Hunt Field, 14.72 inches of precipitation fell, 131 percent of average.

Dubois had 11.58 inches of moisture, or 127 percent of average, and Jeffrey City had 11.76 inches of water, which was 130 percent of average.

NOAA predicts drought to disappear everywhere in Wyoming by the end of February.

Ag impacts

Drought has direct effects on agricultural producers. National Forest Service range specialist Brad Russell expects precipitation this fall to improve range conditions in the Shoshone National Forest, although grass production last year on areas he oversees was "not bad,"

"What was really suffering was the springs that come out of the side of the mountain were not as good as they could have been," Russell said. "The last moisture we've had recharged them."

The spring and summer of 2013 already showed better forage production than in 2012, he said.

Russell said he did not have to ask grazing permittees to cut back, but some voluntarily stocked fewer animals on their range allotments.

The drought in 2012 did not lead to any lasting damage to the range in the national forest, Russell said.

Precipitation this fall should make for a good 2014, he said.

"I think it went into the ground, and it'll be there next year in the spring when green up starts," Russell said. "So I think in the beginning we'll be great."

Conditions for next summer, however, are impossible to predict, so the situation could change, he said.

Not so good for sugar

Early snow this fall came at a poor time for local sugar beet farmers, however. His beets soaked up more water than normal from the sodden fields, farmer Dennis Christensen said. The extra moisture increased the tonnage but lowered the percentage of sugar in the beets.

Additionally, the unusual precipitation prevented the beet crop from entering their winter mode, which causes it to store up extra sugar, before harvest time, he said. That effect also led to less sugar than normal in his beets.

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