By J.L. Schmidt, Statehouse Correspondent,The Nebraska Press Association
Drought is no stranger to Nebraskans.
But this time, exacerbated by extreme heat, wind and wildfires, Drought 2012 has already become the subject of one of the largest disaster announcements ever from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. It is also the subject of bloggers, jokes and prayer chains.
U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said more than 1,000 counties nationwide – 16 in Nebraska – have been declared a natural disaster area. The announcement came on the heels of a national crop report that indicated corn and soybean production would be diminished this year. Even though more acres than before are planted, the secretary said, “We are still looking at significant reductions.”
In Nebraska, the High Plains Regional Climate Center based at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, says moderate drought or worse conditions are plaguing 99.81 percent of the state. Temperatures in the 90-degree to 100-degree range and little rainfall since June add to the problem.
At a time when the earth is parched, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources has issued more than 1,100 shut-off notices to farmers and ranchers who use surface water on their crops and grassland. The orders touch nearly every river basin in the state, speaking to the breadth of the problem.
Lake McConaughy near Ogallala, the poster child for the impact that a bad year of snowpack in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming can have, was brim full last year. This summer it is already at 69 percent of capacity, according to the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, which owns and operates the popular recreation and irrigation site. Central officials caution there is a long-range impact affecting future years.
In western Scotts Bluff County, blogger Karen Ott writes a mostly-weekly post called “The Face of Drought.” She writes: “Pastures have turned to dirt and fields to dust; meteorologists say the heat is bred in the furnace of the desert southwest and carried to our area by the jet stream … but all we know is that it has shriveled our hopes for a good crop to a hard kernel of fear … fear of not having enough irrigation water to finish the season.”
The e-mail prayer chain currently circulating is based on Isaiah 41:10 (fear not for I am with you) and encourages readers to pray for rain and pass the request on to others.
The e-mail joke list claims that it is so hot in (fill in the state) that “the cows are giving evaporated milk … farmers are feeding their chickens crushed ice to keep them from laying boiled eggs … the potatoes cook underground, so all you have to do is pull one out and add butter.”
As is typical in times of disaster, some think they aren’t as bad off as their neighbors. Ott shares comments from a farm wife in neighboring Wyoming who says, “things are tragically dry.” She said absolutely nothing is growing, not even weeds, and “bees have starved to death.”
Ott said she never met Terry, the ranch woman who penned this tale of drought, but she understands her sorrow.
"I thought I knew drought, but I never imagined anything like this,” Ott wrote.