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When does a drought begin and end?

The beginning of a drought is difficult to determine. Several weeks, months, or even years might pass before people know that a drought is occurring. The end of a drought can occur as gradually as it began.

The first evidence of drought is usually seen in records of rainfall. Within a short period of time, the amount of moisture in soils can begin to decrease. The effects of a drought on flow in streams and reservoirs may not be noticed for several weeks or months. Water levels in wells might not reflect a shortage of rainfall for a year or more after a drought begins.

Soaking rains are the best medicine to alleviate drought. Water that enters the soil recharges groundwater, which in turn sustains vegetation and feeds streams during periods when it is not raining. A single soaking rain will provide lasting relief from drought conditions, but multiple such rains over several months may be required to break a drought and return conditions to within the normal range. Even when a drought has been broken it may not be truly over. The benefits of substantial rainfall such as from a tropical storm may last for months, but a return to normal rainfall patterns and amounts is necessary for conditions in streams, reservoirs, and ground water to also return to normal.

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