(AP) Climate experts say drought conditions across the Southeast have improved dramatically with the help of recent rains, but the region is not in the clear yet.
Only a little more than one-fourth of 1 percent of the Southeast was under exceptional drought conditions this week, compared to 22 percent at the start of the year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Wet winter weather has eased pressure on Southern states scrambling to bolster dwindling drinking water supplies. National Drought Mitigation Center climatologist Brian Fuchs, however, said Thursday that the region remains vulnerable and people should make an effort to conserve water.
About 58 percent of the Southeast remains under at least moderate drought conditions, according to the drought monitor, a weekly overview produced by federal agencies and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln-based drought mitigation center. At the start of the year nearly three-quarters of the region was in at least moderate drought.
"I don't think we can say the area is out of the woods, especially given the projected temperatures and precipitation over the coming months," Fuchs said.
Projections for April through June, he said, are for normal levels of precipitation but above-normal temperatures. Hot weather increases water consumption and triple-digit weather last August compounded the effects of the drought.
Precipitation levels so far this year have hovered around normal, a welcome relief after an unusually dry 18-to-24 month period. Last year was the driest year on record for Alabama and the second-driest on record for the Atlanta area.
The increased rainfall has been good news for the region's farmers.
"We're in very good shape as far as soil moisture goes," said Chuck Browne, County Extension Coordinator for Alabama's Lee County.
He said that bodes well for planting later in the spring and has already been a boon for cattle producers who use winter grazing.
"We went into the fall with a severe hay shortage and we really needed nature to work with us, and it really has," he said. "All the winter grazing fields I've seen have just been beautiful."
Fuchs stressed that while surface water conditions are improving, there are more serious hydrological problems that will take longer to heal. He said the deeper soil and water table levels are slower to respond, and it wouldn't take much to send the region backsliding into a severe drought.
"On the short term, we've had very good improvement. Things are starting to green up, and we're seeing water levels improving in streams and rivers," Fuchs said. "But the area is still vulnerable."