The intense drought in western North Dakota is worsening. Over 70% of the state has been in extreme drought conditions since the beginning of April. The U.S. Drought Monitor released its latest report on Thursday, May 20, showing over 16% of the state (including 13 counties) in exceptional drought (D4) conditions — the highest and most severe drought rating on the Drought Monitor.

This is the earliest the D4 category has been documented in the state in the history of the drought monitor, dating back to 2000.

"This means we now are starting to see some really exceptional drought conditions, as in wells running dry, water shortages that are more extreme, ranchers having to do more extreme things with livestock, that sort of deal, crops you plant them into seed bed and they just sit there because there is simply no water at all," said WDAY Meteorologist John Wheeler.

Soil moisture also is decreasing throughout the region, Wheeler said, showing that even places not currently in drought may be facing worsening drought conditions soon.

Despite the worsening conditions, Rick Schmidt, North Dakota State University Extension Agent for Oliver County, said that morale of producers in the area are still very positive.

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“It’s surprising that the attitudes of producers are still somewhat optimistic,” he said. “No matter how much rain comes, we know we are going to be short on forage. We know that we are going to be in a significant reduction in pasture forage. Alfalfa still has a chance, but if you look at an alfalfa field right now, it looks like it was desiccated with Roundup. We would not expect to see dry plants in May.”

Map of the U.S. Drought Monitor as of May 18, released May 20. (U.S. Drought Monitor)
Map of the U.S. Drought Monitor as of May 18, released May 20. (U.S. Drought Monitor)
Given the prolonged dry conditions this spring, Schmidt noted that many producers have already developed plans in the event that the drought conditions continue. Right now, he said producers are trying to determine if now is the time to put those alternate plans into action.

“We always advise to come up with Plan ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C,’” said Schmidt. “Well, we are already on Plan B at this point. Right now, producers are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what might be the lesser of evils given the situations they are dealing with.”

Schmidt also noted that NDSU Extension is there to help producers go over the various options and plans they might have for their unique operation.

“Everybody’s scenario is different, but what Extension can do is we would like to have the opportunity to sit and visit with each producer one-on-one and see if there isn’t a plan that might work for them,” he said. “Whatever it might be, we can sit down and talk about a plan that is specific to their environment.”

Wheeler said recent rainfall and expected rainfall in the coming days will not be enough to end the drought.

"It's just going to be scattered," he said. "There will be some areas that will get enough to get them through for a few weeks. Other areas, we're simply going to have to keep waiting."

Getting some showers and adding some expected cooler weather at the end of the month could improve conditions in the short term, he said.

"Farm by farm, ranch by ranch, conditions will improve," Wheeler said. "These are what you call those timely rains. So will we get enough of that? Over the next week, probably not enough to end the drought, but maybe enough to give some places a little bit of help."

The long-term outlook, though, still calls for warmer-than-average conditions, which would lead to worsening drought, he said.

Thirteen counties in central North Dakota are rated in the exceptional drought (D4) category this week. That is the most severe drought category on the U.S. Drought Monitor and the earliest exceptional drought has been recorded in North Dakota in the 21-year history of the drought monitor. (U.S. Drought Monitor)
Thirteen counties in central North Dakota are rated in the exceptional drought (D4) category this week. That is the most severe drought category on the U.S. Drought Monitor and the earliest exceptional drought has been recorded in North Dakota in the 21-year history of the drought monitor. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Here is a state-by-state look at this week’s drought monitor:

Iowa: Iowa’s drought conditions were unchanged from last week. Severe drought conditions came in at 7.62%. Moderate drought conditions are at 29.23%. Abnormally dry conditions came in at 26.71%.

Minnesota: Minnesota’s drought conditions worsened slightly from last week, but compared to the rest of the region is still experience far less severe. Just 0.78% is in severe drought, unchanged from last week. Moderate drought is at 20.78%, up from 15.44% last week, while abnormally dry conditions are at 32.96%, up from 20.79% last week. Only 45.43% of the state is not experiencing drought conditions, down from 63% last week.

Montana: Montana’s results were also unchanged from last week. The state has 15.71% of land in extreme drought. Severe drought consists of 18.26%, while 32.65% is under a moderate drought. The state has 21.01% of land considered abnormally dry with just 12.37% of the state not experiencing any drought conditions.

Nebraska: Nebraska’s drought conditions improved slightly from last week. That state has 15.61% of land in a moderate drought, compared to 21.88% last week. Abnormally dry conditions decreased from 37.49% to 29.77%. Currently, 54.62% of the state is not experiencing drought conditions.

North Dakota: North Dakota’s extreme drought conditions turned exceptional this week. Over 16% of the state is now categorized in the exceptional drought rating, the highest of ratings on the Drought Monitor. Another 68.24% remains in extreme drought with severe drought unchanged at 8.01%, and moderate drought conditions at 4.85%. Abnormally dry conditions cover 2.16% of the state. One hundred percent of the state is currently experiencing drought conditions.

South Dakota: South Dakota had little change in drought levels. Extreme drought conditions currently sit at 20.73%, with severe drought at 14.45%. Moderate drought increased four points to 34.81% and abnormally dry conditions came in at 20.23%.

Wisconsin: Drought conditions in Wisconsin increased slightly. Acres experiencing no drought are at 45.74%, down from 57.9%. Abnormally dry conditions came in at 27.97%, up from 15.91%, with moderate drought conditions at 26.11%.