At Campbell’s Nurseries and Garden Center in Lincoln, Neb., poinsettias and Christmas trees are on display. But in the greenhouse, pansies are already starting to grow in preparation for hordes of gardeners who will descend on the garden center in the spring. Landscapers are hoping 2013 doesn’t bring a repeat of this year’s crippling drought.
Randy Wolf, assistant manager for Campbell’s, said the continued dry weather this fall affected the company’s harvest of trees in the field. Wolf said the drought will impact tree growth for years to come.
“The rate of growth of trees in the field will be slowed for five to six years because of the drought,” said Wolf. “And we don’t even know the full extent of the damage to people’s trees, shrubs and flowers. We’ll have to see what comes back in the spring.”
Record breaking heat and drought made headlines across the country this year and concerns remain about what the future holds. The High Plains Regional Climate Center reports 2012 could be one of the warmest years on record for the region that includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Temperature rankings show most locations are in the top five warmest on record and every state has at least one station reporting a record so far this year. For example, Norfolk, Omaha, Scottsbluff and Valentine in Nebraska all report the warmest year on average, with average temperatures ranging from 55 degrees to 58 degrees.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 86 percent of the high plains region is described as having drought conditions that are severe, extreme or exceptional. The drought of 2012 had a significant impact on agriculture, with insured crop losses estimated to be at least $20 billion. The drought caused city water mains to break, led to cracked foundations for homeowners, put a damper on water-based recreation and caused considerable fish kills in rivers.
Long-range forecasts aren’t particularly optimistic, according to Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“There’s no confidence in any particular trend right now,” said Hayes. “That means it may not get drier but it also means there’s nothing that would suggest it’s going to improve. Drought is still a concern as we go into spring or summer.
One of the biggest concerns right now is the health of the nation’s winter wheat crop. Unseasonable warmth this fall is causing young plants to try to grow when they should be going dormant and the soil is parched of moisture after a summer of drought. The root systems of wheat plants are weak and stressed, raising fears about how the crop will survive the winter. In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture rated the winter wheat crop at only 33 percent good to excellent, the worst ratings since 1985.
Ranchers are also struggling with the affects of drought and how to feed their animals on depleted reserves. The National Drought Mitigation Center is offering a webinar series to help Great Plains ranchers prepare for and respond to drought. One of the speakers is Lynn Myers, a Sandhills rancher.
“What happens from January through May will be really critical,” said Myers. “For example, it could determine whether there are cattle in the western Sandhills in 2013.”
Drought will also be a national story this winter as governors and businesses struggle with Mississippi River levels that are so low, they threaten to disrupt barge traffic. Hayes said lawmakers will have to struggle with legal, technical and policy questions related to river transportation and falling water levels. Hayes said another national story will be the impact of historic low water levels in the Great Lakes Basin on recreation, transportation and commerce.
Finally, continued drought will make headlines because of a spike in global food prices. Hayes said drought in the United States causes a ripple effect around the globe.
“High food prices in many countries could affect the stability of governments. And that becomes a national security issue for the United States,” Hayes said.
More information about drought and the upcoming webinar series, Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch, can be found at http://Drought.UNL.edu/RanchPlan or at the National Drought Mitigation Center website, www.Drought.UNL.edu. ❖