When his drought-stricken Nebraska farm was blanketed with several inches of snow, Tom Schwarz welcomed the moisture. But it wasn’t nearly enough.
He had hoped for a wet, snowy winter. Instead, he’s watched with worry as the sky spits mostly flakes that don’t stick.
“I just shudder to think what it’s going to be if we don’t get snow,” Schwarz said. “A friend told me it would take 150 inches of snow to get us back to normal precipitation.”
Despite getting some big storms last month, much of the U.S. is still desperate for relief from the nation’s longest dry spell in decades. And experts say it will take an absurd amount of snow to ease the woes of farmers and ranchers.
The same fears haunt firefighters, water utilities and many communities across the country.
Winter storms have dropped more than 15 inches of snow on parts of the Midwest and East in recent weeks. Climatologists say it would take at least 8 feet of snow — and likely far more — to return the soil to its pre-drought condition in time for spring planting. A foot of snow is roughly equal to an inch of water, depending on density.
The Mississippi River has declined so much that barge traffic south of St. Louis could soon come to a halt. Out West, firefighters worry that a lack of snow will leave forests and fields like tinder come spring, risking a repeat of the wildfires that burned some 9.2 million acres in 2012.
Scores of cities that have already enacted water restrictions are thinking about what they will do in 2013 if heavy snows and spring rains don’t materialize.
Western states rely on snow and ice that accumulate in the mountains during the winter for as much as 80 percent of their freshwater for the year, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The melting snow replenishes streams, rivers and reservoirs .