TOPEKA — Gov. Jeff Colyer joined the administration’s agriculture and water officials Tuesday to sound an alarm about evidence of drought in 28 counties and moisture shortages in 29 counties throughout southwestern Kansas.
Kansans have been able to observe for themselves below-normal snow and rain during the past six months, but the governor said some may not realize conditions statewide raised the potential of a heavy wildfire season.
“The entire state of Kansas has been considered in drought or abnormally dry conditions for the past several weeks,” he said. “This has led to an extremely high risk of fire hazards and many have already occurred.”
He signed an executive order at the Capitol covering all 105 counties in Kansas. In that order, 28 were placed in emergency status, 29 in warning status and 48 in watch status.
The most imperiled region is the block of counties running from Hamilton County in the west across to an arc shouldered by Barton, Rice, Reno, Sedgwick and Sumner counties. The warning zone covers a swath one to four counties deep from the Colorado line over to Cowley, Chautauqua, Montgomery, Neosho and Allen counties.
The least threatened area includes counties on the Nebraska line, a large cluster of counties in northeast Kansas and the band of counties along the Missouri border.
“While wildfires are the most urgent concern at this point, water supplies can be dramatically impacted in a very short period of time, especially as we start to enter into spring and summer months,” said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office.
State officials said counties in the emergency zone would be eligible to draw additional water from certain state fishing lakes.
In the past six months, state officials said, average precipitation in Kansas was 66 percent of normal rates. The situation worsened in January and February, with statewide precipitation falling to 43 percent of normal.
In addition to the executive orders, Colyer said the administration would begin the process of seeking permission for farmers or ranchers to cut hay or graze livestock on land enrolled in the federal conservation reserve program.
Jackie McClaskey, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said other steps might be necessary if the drought continued to spread.
“Whether that means making sure regulations and statutes are in place to move hay or working with our federal partners to gain access to additional grazing land, we stand ready,” she said.