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Drought Worsens, Scorching Much of the Country

Saturday, 20 Apr 2013 | 3:53 PM ET
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The drought that ravaged much of the U.S. in 2012 shows no sign of letting up. Spring rains have eased concerns in the Southeast and in some areas of the Midwest, but other sections are not so lucky.

"The western half of the country is bad and will probably get even worse," said Richard Heim, a drought monitor expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"In the plains and California, the long term drought conditions are degrading. It's going to be while before they get better," Heim said.

Nearly 51 percent of the U.S. is still in a drought. That's down from 65 percent in all of 2012— the most severe and extensive drought conditions in 25 years and the hottest year on record, according to the NOAA.

But what's keeping drought watchers on edge this year are rainfall predictions for states like Texas, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, Arizona and California.

Those predictions are expected to be low again this year, helping to create more sun baked lawns and water starved fields.

(Read more: Cold, Snowy Weather Affects North Dakota Farmers).

New Mexico has issued warnings that its entire chili growing season this year is in jeopardy from lack of rain. Drought and water demand has pushed the Colorado River — which services seven western states — to the top spot on a list of American endangered waterways. The governors of Kansas and Oklahoma signed emergency drought relief measures into law this month.

"The West is a naturally arid region and there's always a deficit of moisture to match evaporation and demand," Heim said. "But with the indicators for rainfall being so low, it's not looking good."

The 2012 drought cost an estimated $150 billion in economic damage, as well as an estimated 0.5 to 1 percent drop in U.S. gross domestic product, according to the Department of Agriculture. (DOA)

Global food prices rose 6 percent by July of 2012, mostly due to a rise in grain prices from the U.S. drought, according to the United Nations food price index. Nearly half of U.S. crops harvested in 2012 were in poor or very poor condition.

Despite the crop destruction, U.S. farmers reached one of their most profitable years on record in 2012. With a dramatic rise in farm commodity prices, helped largely because of the drought, net farm income reached $122.2 billion in 2012, the highest-ever nominal profit and the second highest in inflation-adjusted terms after 1973, according to the DOA.

American farmers who didn't see record profits were at least helped by crop insurance, said John Anderson, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. The crop insurance program is funded by the federal government which handed out some $7 billion last year to farmers.

"It definitely helped those in need to have crop insurance," Anderson said. "Without it, things would have been much worse for farmers and the economy."

Earlier this year, the DOA predicted a four percent rise rise in food prices from this year's drought. But improved conditions in some of the country will likely lower the final figure, said Bernard Weinstein, a business economist at SMU Cox School of Business.

"The Department of Agriculture is predicting a record year for corn production and prices so I don't see much of a rise in food costs," Weinstein said. "Some areas of the country are getting better when it comes to the drought. I'm optimistic about the situation."

The rains that have fallen in states like Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Illinois have helped increase moisture levels in the topsoil. But even with the the new moisture, the important lower levels of soil still remain dry.

"The subsoil moisture is still deficient," said Bob Bauer, chief economist at Principal Global Investor and one time farm owner.

"It takes awhile for the moisture on top to ease its way down. You can't raise corn on just top soil, so it's important for the lower level soil to get some water," said Bauer.

(Read more: Drought Risk Alive this year in U.S. Crop Belt)

Just what to do about severe drought conditions remains as difficult as predicting the weather, say experts.

"We've had droughts since the first seeds were ever planted on the earth," said John Anderson. "They're not something new. It's hard to avoid them. The fact is, farmers are always looking at ways to get around them by planting different crops or looking at different irrigation practices."

"A lot of farmers are turning to sorghum, instead of corn," said Bob Bauer. "It's used for grain and in a lot of foods and can do better in much hotter weather."

What may be more crucial than switching crops and irrigation planning, said Christiana Z. Peppard, a professor of theology and science at Fordham University, is having a new attitude on what's causing the drought— a lack of water.

"We need a long-term plan to look at how we use water in the U.S. and around the world," argued Peppard.

"It's clear to me that the science of climate change is here and severe weather conditions are going to be more prevalent in the future," Peppard said.

(Read more: Climate Scientists Struggle to Explain Warming Slowdown)

"Do we need lawns in Arizona? Should agriculture be at 70 percent of all water usage in America?" said Peppard. "Taking shorter showers is nice but it's not the whole answer by any means. Water is a finite resource and we have to think that way."

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