By SEAN MURPHY
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A smattering of summer showers has provided much-needed rain across much of Oklahoma, but nearly a third of the state, including major agricultural producing counties in western Oklahoma, remains locked in an extreme drought that has withered crops, dried up farm ponds and decimated cattle herds.
A wet spring and steady summer showers across a large portion of central Oklahoma has alleviated drought conditions for nearly 25 percent of the state, a major improvement from a year ago when nearly the entire state was experiencing at least moderate drought.
But more than 30 percent of Oklahoma, mostly the Panhandle and about 20 counties in western Oklahoma, are suffering from extreme or exceptional drought, according to a report this week from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
"The drought that we keep talking about really started around October of 2010, and especially in the western part of the state, this has been an accumulation of missing precipitation for a long period of time," said Oklahoma State Climatologist Renee McPherson. "It certainly can't be something that we solve quickly without the types of heavy rainfall that we've seen in certain parts of the state."
Since October, every climate division in Oklahoma has experienced less rainfall than normal, with the statewide average at about 81 percent of normal, according to statistics from the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. By far the hardest hit counties are in the Panhandle (57 percent of normal rainfall), west central Oklahoma (67 percent of normal) and southwest Oklahoma (71 percent of normal).
"In the last 30 days for example, many parts of central Oklahoma ... have seen anywhere up to 5 to 6 inches of rain, but the western part of the state had spotty rain during that time. There were a few locations that had 2 to 4 inches of rain, but there are other locations that didn't even see an inch," McPherson said. "And they're trying to make up for almost a foot of precipitation that they've been missing over the last couple of years. Until they see significantly more precipitation, they are still going to be in drought conditions."
The lingering drought is proving a tough battle for Oklahoma farmers and ranchers, who have seen crops die in the fields and have been forced to thin their cattle herds because of decimated pastures and shriveling farm ponds. The ripple effects of the drought also are stretching into rural communities in western Oklahoma as farms hire fewer workers and spend less money in the local economy.
"This will be the third year in a row that we've missed a cotton crop," said Tom Buchanan, who produces cotton and wheat and runs a herd of cattle in Jackson County in southwest Oklahoma. "Because we are missing a crop, we don't require the amount of labor we normally do."
While Buchanan acknowledged most Oklahoma farmers are eternal optimists and a good rain will eventually lead to bumper crops, he's most concerned about the long-term effect on cattle herds across western Oklahoma and the Panhandle.
"What Oklahoma is going to continue to suffer from the agricultural standpoint is the cow herd that's been decimated by this drought," he said. "That cow herd won't be built back up overnight.
"There's just no water left out here for the cattle. Ponds have dried up, creeks have dried up, and well water is becoming not reliable as it was."
Water sources, both underground water tables and ponds and lakes in western Oklahoma, have been particularly hard hit by consecutive years of drought.
For years, state Rep. Don Armes spent time in the summer cooking out and watching folks boat and water ski at a flood control reservoir near Chattanooga.
"You can walk clear across that lake right now," said Armes, R-Faxon. That was a pretty decent lake. Now, it's just totally gone."
At Canton Lake in northwest Oklahoma, the president of the local lake association is concerned the lake is dying after Oklahoma City officials in January began diverting billions of gallons to Lake Hefner to replenish the drinking water supply for about 1.2 million people in the metro area.
Canton Lake Association President Jeff Converse says he recently saw dead fish in the lake and believes conditions will only get worse as the summer heats up.