Though East Texas lakes may still appear below normal, soil probes at a regional agricultural research site indicate deep soil moisture levels are back to normal.

Several weeks before the last bout of May storms showed sandy loam soils to be saturated at three to four feet, said Dr. Vincent Haby, soil scientist with the Texas A&M University Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Overton.

"It is risky to infer, but most of East Texas has seen similar rainfall patterns as we had at the Overton Center, so the soil moisture profiles should be similar," Haby said.

East Texans should count themselves lucky, according to Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, acting climatologist for the state of Texas. With the exception of the Panhandle and parts of Northeast Texas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) is predicting that drought conditions are likely to persist.

For East Texas, the odds are 50/50--a coin toss--that drought conditions are likely to continue, Nielsen-Gammon said.

"But there is every indication that the strength of the El Nina is weakening and will continue to do so for the rest of the year," he said. Climatologists refer to abnormally cold sea-surface temperatures stretching from the coast of South America across the eastern tropical Pacific as a "La Nina episode." The colder than normal water of La Nina reduces the number and strength of tropical thunderstorms in its area. The reduced tropical thunderstorms in turn affect circulation patterns over the United States. The path of the jet stream across North America is altered, giving differing parts of the country more or less storms than usual.

There has been a strong "La Nina episode" present since the summer of 1998. Last winter, NOAA weather scientists predicted it would start to diminish this spring. It now appears they were correct, Nielsen-Gammon said.

"The good news is that if people can make it through this year, next year should be much better," he said. Twice bitten by drought, East Texas livestock producers have been cutting as much hay as possible, according to Dr. Larry Redmon, Extension forage specialist.

"At this point, things couldn't be better. People still need to think about drought management as part of their everyday strategy," Redmon said. The idea is to plan for the worst, but be prepared to take advantage of good rains and plentiful forage. A drought strategy for livestock owners centers on lowering stocking rates to manageable levels.

"People ask what they are going to do with the excess grass during good years. One option is they can wean their calves and run them in a separate herd as stocker calves if conditions permit," Redmon said. Central and West Texas isn't the only area hurt by a La

Nina-precipitated drought. With its latest forecast, NOAA meteorologists still expect severe to extreme drought conditions to persist in Florida, Georgia, north Arkansas, southern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern and eastern Alabama, western South Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana and Illinois.

An unusually hot summer could fuel drought-related problems. According to NOAA records, the past January-through-April period was the hottest in 106 years of record keeping in the United States. Hot weather means soils dry out quicker, exacerbating the effects of drought.

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