Rains help shrink U.S. drought but High Plains still parched

Carey Gillam

* Rains bring relief to many states in Midwest

* Soil moisture levels remain far short of normal in many areas

* Nebraska, High Plains still suffering, wheat crop threatened

Oct 25 (Reuters) - Many areas of the drought-stricken United States continued to see improvement over the last week as steady rains started recharging parched soils, but for key agricultural areas of the U.S. Heartland, there was little relief, according to a climatology report issued Thursday.

``We've seen some improvement ... but the impact of the drought and the dryness is far from over,'' said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Roughly 61.79 percent of the contiguous United States was suffering from at least ``moderate'' drought as of Oct. 23, down from 62.39 percent a week earlier, according to Thursday's Drought Monitor, a weekly compilation of data gathered by federal and academic scientists.

The portion of the United States under ``exceptional'' drought - the most dire classification - held steady at 5.84 percent and was mostly in western Kansas and Nebraska.

In the High Plains, which include Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, severe or worse drought levels covered 84.90 percent of the region, improved from 87.42 percent the prior week. An estimated 27.44 percent of the region was still in the worst level of drought, unchanged from a week earlier.

Nebraska is the worst hit state in the country, with fully 77.58 percent of the state classified in exceptional drought, unchanged from a week earlier. Winter wheat farmers who have planted or are wrapping up planting their new crop will need significant rainfall and/or snow to provide enough moisture to grow a healthy crop.

In Kansas, the largest hard red winter wheat producing state, ``extreme'' drought, the second-worst level, held steady at 77.80 percent of the state, while the worst level held steady at 39.68 percent of the state.

Areas that saw good improvement over the last week included Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa, due to a slow-moving rainstorm through the Midwestern region.

Good rains were also seen in the west, over northern California, the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies.

Some of the heaviest rain and snow fell in areas that were already drought free, although precipitation chipped away at dryness and drought in a few areas, according to the Drought Monitor report. Meanwhile, dry conditions prevailed across the southern half of the West, the report said.

Fuchs said it will take several inches of rain and snow - several feet in some areas - to fully recharge soils, a possibility that is not at all likely.

``A lot of these areas are a foot or more below normal for the past year,'' he said.

(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)