It might not rain much in Healy. But if it does, it’s Steve Fenster’s job to know about it.
Every morning for more than 40 years as a volunteer with the National Weather Service, he’s peered out the window of his west-central Kansas home scouring his patio for any signs of moisture.
If it’s the least bit wet, he inspects whatever water has collected in a nine-inch aluminum can with a ruler that measures to the hundredth of an inch.
But Fenster hasn’t been walking out to his rain bucket much this past year.
The Lane County town of 195 people is one of seven western Kansas communities that just experienced its driest year on record.
“That’s not a record you’d like to have,” Fenster said. “But it is what it is.”
Only 8.75 inches of precipitation fell in Healy all of last year. That edged out the town’s previous record of 8.92 inches from the milestone drought of 1956. Two other towns that set new records last year — Garden City and WaKeeney — broke marks from the Dust Bowl.
Even in a place where extreme droughts come with the territory, 2022 stands out. And the domino effects — from empty grain bins to stressed psyches to strained economies — will take time to fade even if the ongoing drought breaks by this spring.
Rain is liquid gold here, a semi-arid region where agriculture drives everything and the ability to counter dry years with irrigation from underground reserves isn’t what it used to be.
So when people in Healy want to know how much the rare sprinkle adds up to, they call Fenster. If they can’t catch him on the phone, they stop him in town. On the wall at the bank hangs a big white board where he writes the daily precipitation totals — or lack thereof — which dominate conversations in a year like this.
“This is agriculture country,” Fenster said. “Everybody’s talking about it.”
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The new American desert
Deserts are commonly defined as places that get fewer than 10 inches of rain a year. So at least for this past year, much of western Kansas slipped into that desolate category.
And Healy has looked the part.
Lawns are more brown dirt than green grass. Ponds dried up long ago. Fields that would normally have wheat plants growing several inches high by this time of year are barren and blowing away.
Fenster has watched his community take a financial hit, too. Farmers have experienced more losses from crop failures — he works at a crop insurance agency — this past year than he’s ever seen. Ranchers have had to sell off cattle as their pasture grass disintegrates into nothing. In town, people aren’t spending money like they normally would.
“There’s not much optimism out there,” Fenster said. “We’re all praying for rain.”
Lindy McMillen works directly with farmers as they bring in harvests to sell at the Garden City Co-op’s grain elevator just southeast of Healy. And this year, she said, her office’s traffic has been slow and quiet.
The co-op bought roughly half as much corn last year as it normally does because farmers just didn’t have much to sell. For grain sorghum, or milo, it was less than half.
“A tough year for farmers,” McMillen said, “is tough for everyone.”
In past droughts, she said, some pocket of the company’s footprint — which stretches from Lane County through southwest Kansas — would get enough rain to make a decent crop. This year, the rain missed everybody.
And the forecast calls for drought to hang on for at least another month.
Farmers who have small stands of wheat now are concerned that the plants won’t make it to harvest. Others whose wheat seeds haven’t sprouted yet worry that they never will. If this winter’s wheat fails, that brings up another whole set of stressful questions about pulling the plug on it and trying a different crop in that same field this spring.
Federal financial assistance and payouts from crop insurance have helped a lot of farmers stay afloat for now. But it’s still devastating, she said, to toil all year and then watch your handiwork die.
“Every farmer I know is resilient and tough, but they’re down,” McMillen said. “There’s a lot more somber, concerned feeling heading into this growing season than probably in any one that I’ve ever been involved in.”
Western Kansas started 2022 dry, with southwest parts of the state withering under extreme drought since January. It only went downhill from there.
For the seven towns that broke records, assistant state climatologist Matt Sittel said, the fall particularly accelerated the drought’s deep descent toward parched history.
WaKeeney only got 0.01 inches of precipitation for all of November. Utica didn’t get any that month. Scott City recorded no precipitation whatsoever for the whole month of October and just 0.08 total for the last three months of the year combined.
When the dust settled, some of the new records ended up shattering marks that had stood for decades.
“They didn’t just barely break the record, that’s two inches less,” Sittel said. “That’s unprecedented.”
Here are the numbers for each record-breaking town (based on data from NOAA, limited to towns whose records began before 1956):
1. Garden City, Finney County
New record low: 5.03 inches, 2022
Previous record: 8.86 inches, 1937
Records go back to 1893
Historical average: 18.95 inches
2. Scott City, Scott County
New record low: 8.01 inches, 2022
Previous record: 10.15 inches, 1956
Records go back to 1895
Historical average: 20.18 inches
3. Collyer, Trego County
New record low: 8.37 inches, 2022
Previous record: 9.32, inches, 1956
Records go back to 1940
Historical average: 20.64 inches
4. Healy, Lane County
New record low: 8.75 inches, 2022
Previous record: 8.92 inches, 1956
Records go back to 1901
Historical average: 22.38 inches
5. Utica, Ness County
New record low: 9.78 inches, 2022
Previous record: 12.86 inches, 1916
Records go back to 1916
Historical average: 22.93 inches
6. Ransom, Ness County
New record low: 9.89 inches, 2022
Previous record: 11.74 inches, 2010
Records go back to 1946
Historical average: 22.08 inches
7. WaKeeney, Trego County
New record low: 10.52 inches, 2022
Previous record: 12.17 inches, 1937
Records go back to 1892
Historical average: 23.92 inches
Other parts of western Kansas came close to breaking their records, too. The station at Cedar Bluff Dam in Trego County saw its second-driest year. And for several towns — from Dodge City and Liberal in southwest Kansas to Russell Springs and Atwood in northwest Kansas — 2022 landed among the top five driest years on record.
“This was not just a little isolated event,” Sittel said. “Most of western Kansas was all in the same dry boat.”
The heat didn’t help. For nearly all of western Kansas, this past summer’s average temperatures ranked among the top 25 warmest on record. Dodge City’s summer, for instance, ranked as its sixth hottest.
The compound force of drought and heat particularly zeroed in on Healy.
In addition to experiencing its driest year on record, the town also nearly broke its record for the most days with 100-degree temperatures. Healy saw a total of 47 days reach 100 degrees in 2022. That’s more than three-times its average and one day shy of its record.
Across western Kansas — in towns from WaKeeney to Dodge City to Oakley — the number of 100-degree days in 2022 landed in the top 10 of all years on record.
Then there’s the wind. In a normal year, western Kansas is already one of the windiest places in the country. But 2022 turned that up a notch.
April is typically the state’s windiest month. And Goodland in northwest Kansas and Salina in north-central Kansas both saw their windiest Aprils on record dating back to 1948. Wind speeds in Goodland clocked in at a wearying average of 17.7 mph for the entire month. Salina’s wind averaged 15.2 mph.
The average peak wind gust in April across the state’s 79 monitoring stations was 55 mph. On April 29 — the same day a tornado tore through south-central Kansas — wind gusts in Hays reached 83 mph.
When dry air blows across the soil, it ramps up evaporation and robs the dirt of whatever moisture it has left. That also fueled the towering clouds of dust that swept across parts of western Kansas this past year.
Changes in farm practices, such as less tilling of the soil and using more drought-tolerant seeds, have helped keep the region from reliving the worst consequences of the Dust Bowl. But the drought of the 1930s also lasted a few years, and we don’t yet know when this drought will end.
One ray of hope comes from the Pacific Ocean. A rare triple dip La Niña weather pattern there has helped keep Kansas dry over the past two years. The latest ENSO forecast predicts that La Niña will finally begin to break this spring. But that forecast made similar predictions the past two winters, Sittel said, neither of which came true.
Even if the La Niña pattern ends, Sittel said, it might only mean an extra inch or two of moisture for Kansas. Most of western Kansas would need more than 10 inches of rain to get back to its historical average for the past year.
So it’ll likely be a slow, unsure crawl back to normalcy.
And the stakes are raised with every month that the drought continues. If it lasts into May or June, he said, Kansas will know it’s in trouble.
“What if it happens again in 2023?” Sittel said. “It’s going to be catastrophic.”
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.
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