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Dry spell reaching historic levels in South Dakota; winter wheat, rangeland grass at risk

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RAPID CITY, South Dakota — Keith Smith isn't sure he believes the precipitation data for the Cottonwood area, which has registered an official 0.49 inch so far this calendar year.

His ranch received 0.18 inch of rain last weekend, but before that, the area about 70 miles east of Rapid City had only sprinkles and light dustings of snow since the beginning of the year.

"I would have been surprised that it's even been half an inch," he said, doing the tally in his mind.

Dry conditions are nothing new for Smith and other ranchers on the plains outside of the Black Hills, but this spring has been dry even by their standards.

Only once since the beginning of precipitation records in 1909 has the Cottonwood area experienced a drier Jan. 1 to April 20 period. Other areas in and around the Black Hills of western South Dakota are also suffering historic dry spells.

Here are precipitation totals for Jan. 1 to April 20 this year in some of the driest locations, with the historical rank for each site compared to the same period from earlier years:

— Rapid City Regional airport, 2.75 inches, second driest;

— Hill City, 1.84 inches, tie for second driest;

— Custer, 1.48 inches, third driest;

— Fort Meade, 1.76 inches, fourth driest;

— Newell, 1.31 inches, fourth driest;

— Wasta, 0.32 of an inch, second driest.

Statewide, January-to-March this year was the driest such period on record. Nearly all of the state is rated as abnormally dry, with some areas experiencing moderate drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Dennis Todey, South Dakota's Brookings-based state climatologist, supplied the year-to-date precipitation data to the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/1zQ2Vv1 ) and offered a dry remark when asked why the state is so parched: "Because it hasn't rained."

Precipitation was accumulating close to normally until early February, when the faucet turned off.

"We got caught in a pattern with air coming out of Canada that really didn't have a whole lot of moisture with it," Todey said.

Then, the typical spring snowfalls never materialized, and the region still has not had a heavy dose of spring rain. The light rain last weekend was nice, Todey said, but many areas received a half-inch or less, which "doesn't do much of anything to help."

"Obviously the fire season is still with us, until we can get enough precipitation to help with the green-up," Todey said, referring to the wildfires that have flared up around the state.

Continued dry spring conditions also could hinder winter wheat and rangeland grass growth.

"The rangeland still has some time to recover, but if things don't change around pretty quickly, the rangeland will show some problems this year, too," Todey said.

Smith offered a similar assessment: "We're sure going to need to get some rain here sometime soon to get this grass started."


Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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