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Drought likely to continue in Nebraska in 2013

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraskans should expect the impact of the drought to worsen next year if the current dry forecast for the winter holds up.

Climatologists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's National Drought Mitigation Center said the effects of the drought will likely get worse in 2013 because the state's rivers and lakes have been diminished. Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming are all on track to record their driest years on record in 2012.

The drought contributed to Nebraska's worst fire season since 1919. Don Westover with the Nebraska Forest Service said wildfires burned more than 400,000 acres and destroyed 65 structures in the state this year.

Forecasters at the Climate Prediction Center said the current drought will likely last until at least February. And recovery from the drought will be slow because the ground is so dry.

"When we do have precipitation, very little will go to runoff," climatologist Brian Fuchs said. "Those soils are going to act as a big sponge. They're just going to take in a lot of the moisture. We'll continue to see problems of stock ponds, smaller lakes and streams dropping."

Nebraska state climatologist Al Dutcher says there is only a 10-20 percent chance that this winter will be wet enough to restore moisture levels to normal.

The drought might also contribute to more erosion and deterioration in soil quality. Fuchs said some farmers are using corn stalks as forage for cattle and even baling the corn stalks. Removing the corn stalks eliminates a valuable tool for holding moisture in the soil and preventing erosion.

Drought center director Michael Hayes said there is anecdotal evidence that groundwater levels have already been declining in parts of the state. If conditions remain dry in 2013, it could create widespread problems for well owners in the state, so well owners are being encouraged to have someone check water levels, especially for those dug before 1993.

The impact of the 2012 drought is already evident in the amount of crop insurance payments the federal government is paying. As of Dec. 10, those payments had reached $8 billion nationwide, and Nebraska farmers saw nearly $483 million of that.