ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Overall U.S. drought conditions have worsened for the second week in a row, reversing a recent easing in dry conditions in some areas and keeping the country mired in its worst drought in decades with no immediate relief expected for key Plains farming states.
The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday shows that 62.7 percent of the land in the lower 48 states was in some form of drought as of Tuesday, up from 60.1 percent the previous week. The area in extreme or exceptional drought — the two worst classifications — also rose, to 20.12 percent from last week's 19.04 percent.
Before the recent downturn, overall conditions had gradually eased over five weeks, offering short-lived encouragement to some of the hardest-hit areas.
Wednesday's update showed that the dry conditions intensified sharply in Oklahoma, where 90.5 percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought — a spike of 19 percentage points. The amount of South Dakota in those two classifications rose more than 8 percentage points to 63.32 percent, reflecting the fact that rainfall from south-central Nebraska northward to mid-South Dakota has been less than 25 percent of normal over the past three months.
Little changed in much of the rest of middle America, where 96 percent of Nebraska and nearly 78 percent of Kansas remain gripped by extreme or exceptional drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Eric Luebehusen wrote in Wednesday's update.
The stubborn drought isn't likely to relax its grip any time soon, with light showers expected in the Mississippi Valley and southern Texas later this week, Luebehusen wrote. "Otherwise, dry, warm conditions are expected across the remainder of the contiguous U.S., affording most drought areas little — if any — relief over the next five to seven days," he said.
After a summer in which farmers watched helpless as their corn dried up in the heat and their soybeans became stunted, many are now worrying about their winter wheat.
Most of that crop has emerged, though the parched conditions continue to punish it. Twenty-six percent of those plantings are considered in poor or very poor shape, twice the status from the same time last year, the USDA said this week.
In Kansas, the nation's top wheat producer, 97 percent of the latest crop has germinated, but one-quarter of those plantings are considered poor or very poor. The situation is far worse in South Dakota, where intensifying conditions have allowed just 60 percent of its winter wheat to emerge, with nearly two-thirds of that crop rated in those two worst classifications.