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With summer approaching, drought only growing worse in West

By Thomas Leffler, Accuweather.com
Dried lake bed bakes in the sun at Nicasio Reservoir in Nicasio, Calif., last summer. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/7427488468db2274e732f378f01b4a62/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Dried lake bed bakes in the sun at Nicasio Reservoir in Nicasio, Calif., last summer. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

The expression "April showers" has been just that -- more of an expression than a fact of life for much of the western United States.

The continuance of drought conditions in several western regions mirrors what was predicted in AccuWeather's spring forecast, and the drought will only become worse as summer approaches. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 90% of nine Western states are at moderate drought levels, while 34.97 percent are facing either extreme or exceptional drought.

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On Friday, the World Meteorological Organization declared that precipitation deficits in the West are "at or near record levels" and that the current long-term drought in the region is the worst in the 22-year history of the Drought Monitor.

Part of the explanation for the overly dry landscape, particularly in southwestern areas, is the presence of a La Niña phase. This refers to the cooling water temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean, changing rainfall patterns throughout the entire world. These events during the winter months can cause the northern United States to experience colder weather with more precipitation, while the south becomes susceptible to warmer and drier conditions.

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"A big player is La Niña, which has been present once again this winter," AccuWeather meteorologist Randy Adkins said. "As is often the case during La Niña events, the jet stream has tended to stay farther north than average, keeping the storm track across the Pacific Northwest with fewer storms farther south into California."

A lack of consistent precipitation in California has led to the entire state being under at least a moderate drought level, per the drought monitor, and 40% of the state is under extreme or exceptional drought. The intriguing note for the state is that while precipitation numbers since Nov. 1 are between 80% to 90% of California's average, the rainfall totals were skewed by two events in December. Outside of the December rainfall, the state remained abnormally dry during the winter months, a trend that has continued into spring.

Drought conditions across the central and western United States as of Monday.

Storm tracks remaining to the north due to the La Niña event took a toll not just on California, but also on the country's second-most populated state. The drought has spilled into Texas, creating hazardous conditions that are ripe for wildfires.

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"Much of Texas has fared worse [than California], with the December rainy stretch for California largely missing Texas," Adkins said. "Many areas in Texas have seen 50 or less of the average rainfall from November through March."

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A report from Stephenville, Texas, shows that between Nov. 1 and March 31, the city received just 0.46 of an inch of precipitation. In comparison to the normal precipitation amount during this time period for the city, 11.33 inches, Stephenville received a meager 4% of its normal precipitation over the winter months. Other extremely low precipitation amounts within the same time frame can be found in Fort Stockton, Texas, (5% of normal precipitation) and Midland, Texas, (11%).

One result of the Texas drought has been a flurry of wildfires across the state. In the final week of March alone, Texas firefighters responded to 192 wildfires that burned over 170,000 acres of land. A wildfire in Kleberg County, Texas, sparked on March 30, spread rapidly due to dry and windy conditions in the area. Within one day, the fire burned through an estimated 46,000 acres.

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In response to the outbreak, the Texas A&M Forest Service recently increased the state's preparedness status to Level 4, the second-highest level of wildland fire activity, and postponed all prescribed fires conducted by the Forest Service. In total, the forest service has sent more than 300 firefighters to wildfire sites in the midst of the chaos.

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Outside the country's two most populated states, drought remains rampant in other areas throughout the United States, including the High Plains. The region that contains North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming is also under drought conditions, with 78% of those states experiencing at least moderate drought. Portions of southwestern Kansas are under what the Drought Monitor calls "exceptional drought," which is noted to include "exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses" and "shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies."

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