Kansas City metro likely to feel nasty effects of nearby drought this summer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Tornadoes always grab the headlines for the devastation they bring to communities, but droughts almost never get noticed until it's too late.

And by then, they're usually impacting the national economy.

You may not realize it by looking at all the green grass and foliage on the trees, but Kansas City is on the edge of an expanding drought right now. It began last fall in southwest Kansas and has been spreading across the state and directly toward the metro.

Ken Wood of Family Tree Nursery has been monitoring the dry conditions that developed over the winter, and he said signs of plant stress are already there.

"A lot of small plants didn’t survive the winter because they actually dry out during a winter drought because the ground is dry and the freezing action actually wicks moisture out of the plant roots -- and a lot of small plants just didn’t stand a chance," he said.

Although we’ve had some spotty rains, it’s not keeping pace.

"The rains have been very spotty," Wood said. "You may walk out in the morning and see the pavement is wet. The grass is wet. But if you only got a quarter-inch of rain, you didn’t get a good soaking rain. It barely settles the dust and is really only benefiting the grass. Things with deep root systems need more moisture to really become saturated, and we are just not having those soakers. And we need them."

Over the past seven months, Kansas City has fallen 12 inches behind on rainfall, and the state of Kansas is in even more trouble. Elkhart, Kansas, for example, went 192 days with less than 1/10 of an inch of rain.

During the last drought in 2011, losses statewide exceeded $1.7 billion. So FOX4 meteorologist Mike Thompson went to the Kansas State Water Office to get an idea of where the metro stands now.

Director Tracy Streeter is worried:

"You know, we’ve looked at comparisons of where we are today versus where we were in 2011, we’re worse off right now going into this drought than we were in '11," Streeter said. "Stream flows are less, and you know, the forecast going forward is not good."

Streeter’s job is to monitor and manage the water resources across the state.

"We are looking at how history played out in previous droughts and what we need to be doing to better position ourselves if this one persists," she said. "So there’s a real chance that if this one persists, by the time we get to fall and don’t see any improvement, we’re going to be talking more seriously about some reservoir levels getting low. Certainly the agricultural impacts are going to be huge if nothing changes."

The current Kansas wheat crop is already half of what it should be and is on track to be the smallest crop since 1989. Some farmers are already throwing in the towel and won’t plant again until things change.

And crops are just the first victim of drought. The next domino to fall is the livestock.

"When you start getting into these types of conditions, you start seeing water supplies for cattle dwindle, ponds go dry, and that is the source of water through the grazing season," Streeter said. "Not only that but you may not have started off with the best grass conditions leading into it. We’ve burned the Flint Hills and haven’t had rain. And so maybe we don’t see the type of plant growth we need, and as a result we see shorter grazing seasons, less cattle on the pastures because you don’t have enough water and enough grass that you would normally have out there. And we have to take them off sooner and do something else with the cattle."

As streams dry up, industries and even cities along the main rivers in the state start to worry about their water supply. On top of that, most large reservoirs in Kansas have been gradually silting up, as eroding soil runs off into tributaries upstream. and drops sediment into the lake bed.

"We’re starting to look at a day in the future where Tuttle Creek (Reservoir) really doesn’t have any water storage capacity because we’ve filled the whole thing up with sediment," Streeter said. "It’s over 40 percent silted up today."

If the lakes can’t hold as much water and the combination of evaporation, the lack of rain and the water usage depletes the stream flows, then Streeter would be forced to make some very tough decisions about how to conserve water.

"They always say it’ll rain -- and it usually does," Streeter said. "But one of these years -- you start looking at history and our droughts are not one or two-year droughts. They were five and six years. And if you go way back, they were multi-decade droughts. Who knows what this one is. Is it going to end this weekend or is it going to go throughout the year and into 2019? We don’t know."