Dryness returns to western U.S. crop region
* Dry weather seen for next two weeks
* Region already struggling with drought
* Government cites disaster in most of wheat belt
CHICAGO, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Minimal improvement is expected in soil moisture levels in the drought-stricken U.S. Plains following light rains this week and the western Midwest will remain unfavorably dry through the next two weeks, an agricultural meteorologist said on Thursday.
"Light rains of mostly 0.25 inch or less reached from central Kansas into western and southern Oklahoma with heavier rains in Texas," said Joel Widenor, meteorologist for Commodity Weather Group.
Widenor said moisture would improve in the Delta/Midwest soft red winter wheat region but localized flooding would occur near the Gulf Coast.
"Cold air threats are low over the next two weeks, although minor durum wheat areas in Arizona could see spotty freeze damage for emergent wheat this weekend," Widenor said.
The government declared much of the central and southern U.S. Wheat Belt a natural disaster area on Wednesday due to persistent drought that imperils this year's winter wheat harvest.
In its first disaster declaration of the new year, the Agriculture Department made growers in large portions of four major wheat-growing states - Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas - eligible for low-interest emergency loans.
The four states grew one-third of the U.S. wheat crop last year. Kansas was the No. 1 state at 382 million bushels.
The weekly U.S. drought monitor report from last week showed snowfall in parts of the U.S. Plains had little impact on the historic drought gripping the region, but parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and the Southeast showed slight improvement.
The report issued last Thursday said, as of Jan. 1, 42.05 percent of the contiguous United States was in severe to exceptional drought, down from 42.45 percent the previous week.
The consortium of federal and state climatology experts is expected to issue a new drought report late this week.
(Reporting By Sam Nelson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)