It’s hardly news to anyone living in Marion County that 2011 has been a dry year. State officials who monitor the weather have declared it’s been a significantly dry year.
Marion County sits among the tier of counties that forms the northern edge of the “drought emergency” area that spans most of the state’s southern half.
According to state climatologist Mary Knapp at Kansas State University, Marion County has received between 7 and 8 inches below the annual norm so far in 2011, depending on where you live.
She said the rainfall Marion County received Dec. 12 to 13—around 0.70 inches—helped at some level, but hasn’t changed the bigger picture.
“It depends on what kind of use you’re looking at,” Knapp said. “For winter wheat producers, this (past rain) is very, very beneficial. If you’re a cattle producer, not so much because most of this rain has stayed where it fell. There’s been very little recharged to streams and ponds.
“Right now, the pastures are pretty much dormant, so the grasses are not benefiting directly from that moisture.”
As for the bigger picture, the recent rains “can provide some benefits as we go into the spring because it is helping to wet the profile,” Knapp said. “But if the rains don’t continue—if we don’t have a wet February-March-April—your deficits will rebuild really quickly.”
Through Dec. 13, Hillsboro’s rainfall total for December stood at 0.84 inches. Normal rainfall in December is 1.12 inches,
Unfortunately, the outlook for early 2012 isn’t promising.
“Ideally, we would continue with average to above-average moisture through the winter, and continue normal into the spring. The likelihood for that? Not particularly great,” Knapp said.
“When we look at the precipitation outlook for December, January and February, they call for drier than normal conditions in the southeastern to southwestern part of the state.
“December is on track to be wetter than normal,” she added, noting forecasts for additional precipitation early this week. “But all you would have to do is have a dry February and it would wipe out your gains in December.”
End the drought?
So, would receiving average rainfall totals be enough to end a “drought”?
“It depends on the criteria people use,” Knapp said. “If we keep getting average (precipitation amounts) for another year—yeah, we’ll say the drought’s over. But if you end up with average during the winter and you have below-average in the spring season, the drought will intensify quickly.”
Knapp said she has heard a few reports where recent rains have caused dry springs to flow again.
“But overall, (the rain) has been a let’s-keep-the-dust-down kind of thing,” she said. “It certainly is much better than not getting anything at this time of the year. But it’s going to be a slow haul out of this.”
Low lake levels
Beyond the agricultural scene, the drought has made a visible difference at Marion Reservoir, which last week was a little more than 3 feet below conservation pool.
Park ranger Kyle Manwaring said the situation is the result of a planned draw-down of 2 feet initiated in December 2010 followed by insufficient rain in 2011 to refill the lake.
“We have a problem with ice out here,” Manwaring said of the routine draw-down strategy. “When it starts breaking up, it chews the shoreline up and causes a lot of erosion. So to get away from that, we drop the lake level 2 feet. We lost an extra foot with the drought this summer.”
The recreational component of the lake has been affected most by the water level.
“We’ve had to close two boat ramps, and a third access-point boat ramp around the lake,” Manwaring said. “That only leaves one available for people to use right now.”
The full-access ramp is at Marion Cove, but most other ramps can be used by small fishing boats, he added.
Meanwhile, the reservoir’s role as the raw-water source for Hillsboro, Marion and Peabody is not in jeopardy. But current conditions prompted the Kansas Water Office to issue a drought watch Nov. 23 for water-marketing customers.
At KWO’s recommendation, the city of Hillsboro adopted a resolution at its Dec. 6 meeting to impose initial “watch” procedures, which primarily is to make the public aware of the situation.
Knapp said the reservoir rainfall to this point in 2011 is 6.93 inches below normal. And while few people enjoy a duration of sub-freezing temperatures, she said a mild winter could have additional detrimental affect on the lake level.
“If you’ve got warm temperatures and south winds as high as 33 mph and you don’t have any ice on that lake, you’re going to have more evaporation than would be typical during your winter normally,” she said.
“Normally, the lake freezes over and it doesn’t matter if it gets paticularly windy. (Evaporation is) going to be blocked by that ice.”
Knapp said Kansas’ best friend this month has been “a very active” Madden–Julian oscillation, which is an intraseasonal variability in the tropical atmosphere.
“It has resulted in a lot more storms coming in along the West Coast, and a lot of them have come out of the Four Corners region,” she said, which is the area where the corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet.
“That is a benefit to us because that tends to bring gulf moisture in advance of the arrival of the storm system—which is exactly what we like.”
In the meantime, Knapp said people need to remember that periods of drought is a natural part of the weather cycle. She said from 2000 to 2003 Marion County experienced below-average rainfall, with above-average rainfall for seven of the next eight years—including a whopping 13.37 inches above normal in 2008.
It seems all but certain that 2011 will be only the second year in the last nine to finish with a moisture deficit.
“The problem is, if you have wet years for four, five, six years, it’s easy to forget that dry years come around, too.”