(CNSNews.com) – Almost 62 percent (61.8%) of the continental United States experienced drought in July 2012, making it the largest drought-affected area since the end of the “Dust Bowl" era in December 1939, when 62.1 percent of the U.S. was drought-stricken, the USDA said.
According to the Palmer Drought Index – which covers 113 years and is used for historical comparison purposes -- the worst drought ever recorded was in July 1934, when 79.9 percent of the continental U.S. was affected.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, since 1999, has used a new Drought Monitor to determine the extent of agricultural drought.
As of Jan. 1, the Drought Monitor showed that 61.09 percent of the continental U.S. was experiencing drought – down from the September 2012 peak of 65.45 percent.
Despite the slight decline in overall U.S. drought coverage, the central portion of the nation experiencing the worst drought category – D4, or exceptional drought – has been slowly rising. Exceptional drought covered 6.75 percent of the nation on January 1, the greatest coverage since November 2011. (See map)
In the past week, there has been “above-normal precipitation” in the southeastern U.S., but drought conditions expanded in southwestern and central areas that didn’t get any rain.
“The cumulative impact of precipitation during this week and previous weeks resulted in contraction of drought areas in the West, South, and East,” according to the National Drought Summary for Jan 1, 2013. "But drought expanded in those areas which missed out on the beneficial precipitation.”
The Associated Press reported on Jan. 2 that climatologists predict it will take as much as 8 feet or more of snow during the winter months to restore farmland soil to pre-drought conditions.
On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack designated 597 counties in 14 states as primary natural disaster areas because of drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. These are the first disaster designations made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013.
In 2012, USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought, or 71 percent of the United States.
At the height of the 2012 drought, USDA announced a series of actions to help to farmers, ranchers and businesses impacted by the 2012 drought, including lowering the interest rate for emergency loans, working with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers, and expanding the use of set-aside conservation acreage for haying and grazing.
Those same actions continue to bring relief to producers ahead of the 2013 planting season, USDA said on Wednesday.