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Omaha area's hot, dry summer ends on a hot, dry note, but much-needed rain is on the way

Omaha area's hot, dry summer ends on a hot, dry note, but much-needed rain is on the way

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Omaha’s hot, dry summer ended with an unusually dry August that tipped the metro area into extreme drought.

But there’s good news this week: A strong shot of cool weather is headed this way, and with it could come the first real rain since the third week of June.

According to the National Weather Service, Omaha just closed the books on its fourth-driest and seventh-warmest summer on record. (For record-keeping purposes, the weather service considers June-August to be summer. State and national rankings will be released later this month.)

The Omaha landscape shows it. In those areas that haven’t been watered regularly, the ground is hard, the grass is brittle and weeds have overtaken lawns.

Officially, conditions in much of the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area have deteriorated into “extreme” drought, according to the UNL Drought Monitor, making this part of the country the hardest-hit by drought in the eastern half of the U.S. (Extreme drought is widespread in parts of the western U.S.)

Much of the rest of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa remain in “moderate” to “severe” drought. The difference has to do with the severity of the impact on crops and water supplies.

Last month, with its 0.46 of an inch of rain, was the city’s driest August in more than 100 years and third-driest on record, according to Dirk Petersen, a meteorologist with the weather service. Records date to 1871 for Omaha. The driest previous years, in order, were 1913 and 1894.

Petersen said he has been struck by how much the spigot has shut off in Omaha in terms of rainfall. Through much of 2018 and 2019, precipitation was significantly above average, and historic flooding inundated much of the state’s river valleys in March 2019. But much of 2020 has been dry. Omaha hasn’t had near-normal monthly precipitation since March, according to the weather service. And it’s been since June 18-19 that the city received an inch of rain, the amount considered necessary every week for a healthy summer landscape.

“It’s quite a contrast,” Petersen said. “We’ve gone from flooding to drought in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. We can’t really stay in the middle. It’s been one or the other here lately.”

John Fech, horticulturist and educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, said people wanting to protect their landscape against drought and prepare for winter need to set priorities. Decide what matters most, your trees or lawn? Or something planted new this year?

Why set priorities instead of just watering it all?

That sounds good, Fech said, but reality has a way of interfering.

“It’s usually difficult to water everything in your yard,” he said.

What might be priorities? A family with kids might want a healthy lawn for them to play on; someone who spends time socializing outdoors might want to keep a shade tree healthy, or a privacy hedge. Focus first on keeping your most important areas watered and healthy, and then whatever time you have left over, give to the rest of your yard.

To determine whether and how much to water, use the screwdriver test. Sink a screwdriver into the ground, and if you can’t easily get it 12 inches down, it probably needs water. If it comes up dusty, the ground is dry; if it comes up with mud or wet dirt clinging to it, you don’t need to water. A good rule of thumb most of the time is an inch of water a week and more during hot periods.

Just about all of Iowa and much of Nebraska are dry, but those areas aren’t as bad off as Omaha and western Iowa. In Lincoln, it was the city’s 61st driest summer.

This summer’s heat in Omaha was noteworthy in that it was persistently hot with virtually no record heat. One daily record was set: The temperature failed to drop below 77 degrees on the morning of June 9, setting a new record “high low.”

However, Omaha recorded 46 days from June to August when the temperature crested 90 degrees. That’s 18 more than average. That trend continued into the start of September. The high on Sunday reached 96 degrees, making it the third of the month’s first six days with highs in the 90s.

Cold air dropping down from Canada this week will bring a much-needed change. Highs on Tuesday and Wednesday in Omaha might peak in the 50s and overnight lows all week are forecast in the 40s and low 50s. Rain is possible every day this week starting Monday night. An inch or two is possible, with higher totals forecast for much of Iowa.

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Email: nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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