Drought across much of Missouri and Illinois now considered severe
Already-crippling drought conditions have worsened across much of Missouri and Illinois in the last week, climatologists for the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday. Most of the bi-state region, including all of the St. Louis area, is experiencing severe drought conditions or worse, the report showed.
U.S. Drought Monitor
While for many who have been battling record-breaking heat without rain for weeks, drought conditions are nothing new, the latest report shows the worst conditions yet with 82.5 percent of Missouri and 66 percent of Illinois experiencing at least severe drought conditions. In the Missouri Bootheel and the southernmost part of Illinois, many counties are seeing extreme drought conditions. Some rare cases in Illinois have led the Monitor to classify the conditions as exceptional — the worst possible drought distinction.
One hundred percent of both states are experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions, and forecasters say that the drought will persist or intensify in the coming weeks and months.
All of this is very bad news for farmers who are struggling with extremely dry soil conditions induced by the heat and dry weather. Ninety-seven percent of topsoil in Missouri and 96 percent in Illinois has been judged as poor or very poor, according to the National Weather Service. For corn and soybeans undergoing critical stages of yield development, such conditions are potentially lethal.
The numbers have actually improved slightly in recent days as scattered thunderstorms and marginally cooler temperatures offered the bi-state region a brief respite following 10 straight days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. But the National Weather Service in St. Louis expects temperatures across the region to return to the upper 90s next week, and no significant rain is projected.
It would take 6-12 inches of rain to break the drought in the St. Louis area, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center reported this week. In areas of southern Missouri and Illinois most affected by the drought, that number is more like 12-15 inches of rain.
The St. Louis area is almost 6.5 inches below normal rainfall totals since May 1. Since the beginning of the year, St. Louis average temperature is a record-breaking 60.5 degrees.
One bright side
While commercial farmers are looking at decreased crop yields and profits, the extreme heat and drought conditions offer some good news for the Missouri Department of Transportation as mowing crews fan out across the state.
The same factors that make for difficult growing conditions for commercial corn and soybean crops also slow the growth of roadside grasses, weeds and other wild plants. For MoDOT, that could mean hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in grass-cutting savings across the state.
The cost of maintaining median and road-side grass for 33,681 miles of state and federal highways in Missouri is about $10 million annually. In a typical year, the department schedules four cuts — one near Memorial Day, one in early July, another near Labor Day, and a final cut later in the autumn. Each cut costs about $2.5 million ad takes hundreds of crewman days to accomplish.
Earlier this year, MoDOT elected to go with three cuts, eliminating 25 pecent of the yearly cost. Now, according to MoDOT St. Louis District Maintenance Engineer Becky Allmeroth, the department may save even more money as the summer heat takes over grass control for cutting crews in some areas of the state.
Allmeroth said the new three-cut schedule calls for the second statewide mowing to take place in the coming weeks. But in southern Missouri where drought conditions are worst, reduced growth, particularly in medians, will let crews reduce the area they must mow. In the St. Louis area, where on any given day 300 crewmen are out cutting, routes will be evaluated for maintenance on an individual basis.
Hopefully, that will lead to additional savings for MoDOT, Allmeroth said. Some of the saving will likely be offset by an increase in debris removal caused by more heat-induced tire blowouts, she added.