Huge snowfalls needed for drought relief

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ST. LOUIS -- When his drought-stricken Nebraska farm was blanketed with several inches of snow, Tom Schwarz welcomed the moisture. But it wasn't nearly enough.

"I just shudder to think what it's going to be if we don't get snow," Mr. Schwarz said. "A friend told me it would take 150 inches of snow to get us back to normal precipitation."

Despite getting some big storms last month, much of the U.S. is still desperate for relief from the nation's longest dry spell in decades. And experts say it will take an absurd amount of snow to ease the woes of farmers and ranchers, firefighters, water utilities and communities across the country.

Winter storms have dropped more than 15 inches of snow on parts of the Midwest and East in recent weeks. Climatologists say it would take at least 8 feet of snow -- and likely far more -- to return the soil to its pre-drought condition in time for spring planting. A foot of snow is roughly equal to an inch of water, depending on density.

Many areas are begging for moisture after a summer that caused water levels to fall to near-record lows on lakes Michigan and Huron. The Mississippi River has declined so much that it is feared that barge traffic south of St. Louis could come to a halt.

On Friday, Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard officials said efforts to keep the crucial stretch of the drought-starved Mississippi River open to barge traffic should be sufficient to avert the shipping shutdown.

The corps said crews in recent weeks have made "fantastic" progress clearing treacherous bedrock from a channel about 150 miles south of St. Louis near Thebes, Ill. -- the portion of the river that has grown especially worrisome to barge operators moving an array of cargo to northern states and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Rumors of a river closure have been greatly exaggerated," Mike Petersen, an Army Corps spokesman in St. Louis, told The Associated Press. "We're all working for the same thing -- keeping the river open."

Scores of cities that have already enacted water restrictions are thinking about what they will do in 2013 if heavy snows and spring rains don't materialize.

For a while, it seemed no snow would come. Midwestern cities including Chicago, Milwaukee and Des Moines, Iowa, had their latest first snows on record. How much would it take to make things right?

"An amount nobody would wish on their worst enemy," said David Pearson, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Omaha, Neb. "It's so out of this world it wouldn't make much scientific sense (to guess). It would take a record-breaking snowfall for the season to get us back on track."

Even if a massive storm developed, the temperature would have to be right for farmers to benefit. If snow melts on frozen ground, the water will run off into rivers and streams, instead of being absorbed into the soil.

Runoff would be welcome in Sioux Falls, S.D., which was among countless communities that clamped down on water use last summer as rivers and lakes that supply power plants and households grew shallower.

South Dakota's biggest city imposed its first water restrictions since 2003 as the Big Sioux River, which recharges its aquifers, dropped. Homeowners were limited to watering lawns once a week. Washing outdoor surfaces like sidewalks, driveways and parking lots was banned.

Western states rely on snow and ice that accumulate in the mountains during the winter for as much as 80 percent of their freshwater for the year, according to the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. The melting snowpack replenishes streams, rivers and reservoirs and provides water for cities and crops.

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