How Close Is Kansas To Another Dust Bowl?

Feb 7, 2013

A huge dust storm moves across the High Plains during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Credit USDAgov / Flickr

If Kansas' current drought continues through 2013, the severity of the water shortage may rival the bad years of the 1930s and '50s.

The drought is already causing problems and prompting Wichita city officials to think about water rationing.

The drought is bad by several measures. This year's winter wheat harvest will likely be well below normal, due to low rain during planting last fall.

For ranchers, there isn't as much grazing land, so they'll likely have to sell their cattle earlier at lower weights. And area rivers and streams are near record low levels.

Sedgwick and many other Kansas counties are in severe drought status and change is not in the short-term forecast.

At the National Weather Service office in Wichita, meteorologists like Andy Kleinsasser are monitoring the drought. He says there is concern if the lack of rain continues for another year.

"I'd venture to guess that if we have one more really dry spring and summer in 2013, that we're going to be starting to rival the droughts of the '30s and '50s," says Kleinsasser.

The Kansas Water Office manages the state's water resources and is working with communities like Wichita to address shortages. Director Tracy Streeter says persistent drought is likely to continue throughout the entire High Plains region in 2013.

"That said, we'll have to wait and see whether that comes to fruition or not, but we are preparing for the advent that it is going to be another dry year in 2013,"  says Streeter.

During periods of severe drought, the Kansas Water Office has the authority to divert water to hart-hit areas, but that solution isn't practical over long distances and not necessary for Wichita.

"The city of Wichita relies on two sources, the Cheney Reservoir and the Equus Beds Aquifer," says Streeter.

"And of course, they have the aquifer storage and recovery project that's designed to recharge the aquifer when we have surface flows in the little Arkansas river."

Cheney Reservoir provides Wichita with at least 60 percent of the city's drinking water, but due to the on-going drought, the water level on the lake is roughly 40 percent lower than average.

Kleinsasser says regular rainfall will not be enough to eliminate the drought.

"We need anywhere from about 5 to 9 inches additional rain on top of the normal, in order to break the drought," he says.

"We can't get that all at once, obviously, because then it's just going to run off and it's not going to have time to soak into the ground and recharge those aquifers."

Atmospheric scientists study large-scale patterns like El Niño and La Niña to get a sense of potential weather changes in the coming months, but these long-term forecasts are subject to constant revision.

Kleinsasser says there are not any conclusive signs that indicate Kansas and the High Plains states will come out of drought.

Wichita city officials are now considering water restrictions for the first time in nearly two decades.

The public works and utilities department will present options to the City Council at a workshop meeting on February 26.