Drought descends on states

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LUBBOCK, Texas — With much of the nation focused on a spring marked by historic floods and deadly tornadoes, Texas and parts of several surrounding states are suffering through a drought nearly as punishing as some of the world's driest deserts.

Some parts of the Lone Star State have not seen any significant precipitation since August. Bayous, cattle ponds and farm fields are drying up, and residents are living under constant threat of wildfires, which have already burned across thousands of square miles.

Much of Texas is bone dry, with scarcely any moisture to be found in the top layers of soil. Grass is so dry it crunches underfoot in many places. The nation's leading cattle-producing state just endured its driest seven-month span on record, and some ranchers are culling their herds to avoid paying supplemental feed costs.

May is typically the wettest month in Texas, and farmers planting on non-irrigated acres are clinging to hope that relief arrives in the next few weeks.

“It doesn't look bright right at the moment, but I haven't given up yet,” said cotton producer Rickey Bearden, who grows about two-thirds of his 9,000 acres without irrigation in West Texas. “We'll have to have some help from Mother's Nature.”

That the drought is looming over the Southwest while floodwaters rise in the Midwest and South reflects a classic signature of the La Niña weather oscillation, a cooling of the central Pacific Ocean.

This year's La Niña is the sixth-strongest in records dating back to 1949.

“It's a shift of the jet stream, providing all that moisture and shifting it away from the south, so you've seen a lot of drought in Texas,” Mike Halpert, deputy director of the federal government's Climate Prediction Center in Silver Spring, Md.

The current dryness is close to the surface, affecting plants with shallow roots. Last summer, heavy rains drenched most of the state, but the faucet shut off in September.

Now the ground is cracking in parts of many drought-stricken states, including Oklahoma, where it's exceptionally dry in the west and wet in the east.

The parched landscape means the threat of fire is never far away. On Monday, the National Weather Service issued “red flag warnings” — meaning conditions are ripe for fires in portions of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

In New Mexico, the first three months of the year have marked the second-driest start to any year on record. On Monday, a couple of new fires started, adding to the more than 400 that have scorched more than 490 square miles.

Officials plan to close Lincoln National Forest in southeastern New Mexico on Thursday. At least two other national forests have imposed various stages of fire restrictions, and the New Mexico State Forestry Division has enacted restrictions across all but parts of four northern counties.