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The Effects of the 2012 Drought in Nebraska

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Detailed Description

Director of the USGS Nebraska Water Science Center, Robert Swanson, discusses how the drought of 2012 unfolded in Nebraska, the fallout, and what put this drought in a class with other major droughts during the past 100 years.




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Nebraska Drought 2012

Rachael Hoagland:  Welcome to the 12th episode of Nebraskast, where we talk with real USGS scientists about the important water resources work they're doing all over Nebraska. My name is Rachael Hoagland. I'm here with the director of the US Geological Survey Nebraska Water Science Center, Bob Swanson, to talk about this summer's drought. Welcome, Bob.
Robert Swanson:  Good morning, Rachael. As we talk about drought today, we're on the heels of a pretty historic event on the East Coast, Hurricane Sandy. To a lot of listeners, it might be curious that we're still talking about drought here in the Midwest, but we're very much in the grips of a deep drought here yet.
Rachael:  How does this drought we've had this summer stand apart from other droughts that we've had?
Robert:  This drought is like some of our historic droughts. The '30s and the '50s come to mind. It stands in that same type of class, but it differs from those droughts as being how quickly it came on. In the spring of 2011, we still had very good stream flows in the normal condition. Precipitation wasn't too bad. Things were looking pretty good. As many of the state agencies and federal agencies were asked about water conditions, they would've probably labeled it "good," but in the course of a couple of months, things really went south on us. That's what really stands out.
The Drought Mitigation Center has called this a "flash drought," a correlative to a flash flood. I think that's very interesting. It adequately describes just how fast we got into a very deep drought, virtually no rain from the end of May on.
The last real good rain we had in the eastern part of the state was around June 1st. We'll still continue to get a few showers, of course. Irrigation has shut down. But that doesn't mean we're out of the drought at all. We're still very much in the grips of it.
Rachael:  What have been some of the consequences of the drought been for Nebraska, both in terms of crop production and in terms of surface-water obligations through compacts to other states?
Robert:  On terms of crop production, certainly those who had access to groundwater irrigation, I think they're going to have a banner year. Crop prices will be up because of crop failures in adjacent states. In particular, those dry land farmers have seen near catastrophic, total losses of their crops. I've lived in this state for 56 years now, and I haven't seen a drought this deep. There's certainly been longer droughts, but this one's been particularly damaging.
In terms of obligations to other states, I think we're still tallying up the totals to see if we've met our obligations to surrounding states and they've met their obligations to us. That part remains to be seen.
The US Geological Survey Nebraska Water Science Center does have a web page that we've established for drought watch. You can get to it by going to our main page at On that we have a number of resources.
If you want to find out more about what is a drought, and how it compares to past droughts, current stream flow conditions, links to other agencies and their drought response pages--we have a number of photos that we've taken over the summer. We'll continue to populate that as we, hopefully, recover from this drought.
Rachael:  What role has USGS had in monitoring the drought? What have they seen?
Robert:  The US Geological Survey's role in monitoring this drought in Nebraska has focused mainly upon the water resources aspect. We have made additional stream flow measurements. In many rivers, we are measuring flows down to points that we have not seen before. We've had many of our stream flow gages go dry. Most of the summer, 10 to 11 percent of our 120-plus stream gages were dry. Many more than that, close to half, most of the summer were at least in the drought category, if not in the exceptional drought category.
As we speak, over three-quarters of the state is still in the highest drought category that is measured, the exceptional category, according to the Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, who compiles information from a number of agencies like NRCS, the USGS, the National Weather Service. They bring all of that information together to make drought assessments available to the public.
In addition to the stream flow monitoring, we've also been out monitoring groundwater levels. Other agencies collaborate with the USGS in providing some of those groundwater levels to us. Those are going to give us clues about how long the effects of this drought may be with us. Certainly, pumping out of the aquifers is something that needs to be considered.
The final thing that we've been doing, we're on the heels of the 2011 flood. A year ago we were doing a podcast about flooding. We've gone back to some of the sites that we collected high flow samples during the flood events for water quality samples, and we're gathering a few samples to collect some comparable low flow samples during the drought.
Rachael:  As we're heading into fall, how have the effects of the drought changed in terms of water levels on the rivers and water use restrictions?
Robert:  This drought has affected Nebraska in a number of different ways. There have been people who have had domestic wells that have gone dry. Those wells need to be replaced. In some cases, they needed to have water delivered to their residences. There are some municipal water systems that have been pretty much in the same category. The municipalities and villages have had to implement both voluntary and, in the case of Lincoln and a few other communities in Nebraska, had to institute mandatory restrictions on water use and limiting things like sprinkling of water on lawns and washing cars and things like that.
The City of Lincoln was very close to operational limits on its own well field, something that they'd never come close to in the past, so it's something that they're watching very closely. The USGS worked very carefully with them, making many more additional measurements on the Platte River near Ashland and the sources of water that come down the Platte or the City of Lincoln.
Rachael:  Those restrictions have been lifted now, does that mean that there's been a rebound of some kind? I'm talking about as we've headed into fall. What's changed? We haven't gotten more rain.
Robert:  What's changed is that the irrigation season is over, so stream flows have rebounded. You can see that readily on our website. They have not rebounded to the point where they should have. Another interesting aspect is that because the growing season ended so quickly, sooner, we did see some of these rebounds happen earlier than they had in the past. It was not necessarily because we were getting through the drought. It was because [laughs] crops had quit growing.
As irrigation ceased, we did see some recovery, but again, they are not rebounding as quickly. From what we can see of the continuous ground water level recorders, they're not rebounding as quickly as they would either.
Rachael:  Are there any predictions out there about how long this might last? How likely is this to carry over into next year? What would it take to bring us out of it?
Robert:  Yeah, there are predictions about how quickly we could get out of this or what's going to happen in the future. The last I heard, it was about an even split as to whether we're going to be cooler and wetter or hotter and drier. So it's something that the state needs to look at very carefully. The USGS is part of the Nebraska's climate assessment and response committee that's chaired by Al Dutcher, our state climatologist. That group meets regularly to discuss conditions within the state and to make recommendations to the governor.
Rachael:  How is drought defined exactly? I'm assuming this might have some effect on we determine when the drought is over.
Robert:  Simplistically, drought is defined as drier than normal conditions, but it's much more complicated than that. Drier than normal for Nebraska, even within Nebraska, drier than normal conditions for eastern Nebraska could be a very adequate amount of precipitation--what they would expect normally in the western part of the state. A lot of it is how we perceive. A drought can be defined as an economic drought, an agricultural drought, meaning that it may affect row crops, that maybe grasslands wouldn't normally be affected. I can be an economic drought as well.
You can define it on many different levels. Typically, if we think about what a drought means in the southeastern part of the country, where they may get 30-40 inches of rain a year and expect that much, if we were to get a fraction of that in western Nebraska, we'd consider ourselves to be well above normal.
Rachael:  Well, and of course, no discussion of environmental disaster is complete without talking about climate change. Is climate change viewed as playing a part in this drought event?
Robert:  There's been a lot of discussion about that. It certainly is very much a part of climate variability. That much is evident if you look at the past decade, where we had a relatively long drought in the early 2000's. We had a very wet year in 2011. These types of droughts climatically and within our state, historically and prehistorically, have been known to last for decades. We tend to think in terms of a drought lasting a year or two years or three years, but I think we need to be more aware of how long that they've occurred in the state in the past. Some of those certainly have lasted decades.
Rachael:  Bob, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us today about a very important issue in our state.
Robert:  It's my pleasure. 
Rachael:  You can find more information about drought in Nebraska by going to This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior.

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