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Drought: Worst is Yet to Come

Jerry Bowen and Jim Axelrod write in cbsnews.com that more than a third of America is now affected by months of drought and the worst is yet to come. While the government believes there will be improvement in the East and parts of the West by the end of July, conditions in the Southwest and High Plains are likely to remain as bad as any seen since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.

Bowen reports on the West, where drought conditions range from mild to extreme and cover a wide area. In the parts of the West where the drought is worst, so is the wildfire danger. Americans from Arizona north to Colorado have received a signal that the fire season's come early.

Five western states also have already declared drought emergencies, including Utah, where third generation rancher Clark Jones has to buy expensive hay to keep his skinny cattle alive. There hasn't been a drop of rain here in more than a year. "I've never seen it this dry before in my lifetime," Jones says.

"We're seeing fire behavior that we normally don't see until late August, summertime ? dry, extreme conditions," says Taylor Sevens of Denver Metro Fire.

In southern New Mexico, a suspect in a 9,500-acre fire that burned 20 structures committed suicide Wednesday night. In a suicide note, William Myers said he believed he had caused the wildfire, Otero County Sheriff John Lee says. Lee says Myers didn't know whether the fire started from a cigarette or a spark from his all-terrain vehicle, but "He did know he caused it."

Firefighters are watching for flare-ups in the rugged terrain of the Coronado National Forest where a wildfire that burned more than 38,000 acres was finally contained. The blaze, which began a week ago in southern Arizona, was fully contained last Thursday night, says Chadeen Palmer, spokeswoman for the firefighting team. The wildfire burned one home and two barns and spread rapidly because of gusting winds, growing from 3,000 acres to 30,000 acres in one 12-hour period. No injuries were reported. The cause was unknown.

It's a problem of too little winter snow on the mountains, no run-off in the spring, and no rain in the forecast. California is wet in the north, but dry in the south. The warning signs are already up in the mountain town of Idyllwild, 100 miles east of Los Angeles. The reservoir is down to just a foot-and-a-half of water at a time when it should be 20 feet deep. Los Angeles may set a record for the driest year since they started keeping records 125 years ago. Just over four inches of rain has fallen since last July.

Axelrod reports that there are watches and warnings throughout the Northeast, too. Parts of five states there have declared full-scale drought emergencies; however, recent rainfall may have changed the picture some. "There's no drought," says New Jersey peach farmer Peter Demarest. "We've busted it."

"Superficially speaking, it looks like the drought is over," says Doug LeCompte of the National Weather Service. However, a little rain doesn?t mean the drought danger is over. Wells and reservoirs take longer to fill ? and long-term forecast are uncertain.

"We try to emphasize we still have significant long-term rainfall deficits and we're not out of the woods yet," LeCompte says. "If the summer turns out to be especially dry and warm we could have some really serious problems."

This week's rain hasn't changed the picture for New York City: Mayor Michael Bloomberg warns that the city's water restrictions will be upgraded unless upstate reservoirs receive 15 more inches of rain in the next several weeks. The New York City system also supplies water to many suburbs. Despite recent rains, the city's reservoirs are at 65 percent capacity. They should be 90 percent full this time of year.

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