By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - A devastating drought tightened its grip on Texas over the last week with more than half the state now suffering the most extreme level of drought measured by climatologists.
A report released Thursday from a consortium of national climate experts said over the last week, Texas saw the highest levels of drought - rated as "exceptional" - jump from 43.97 percent of the state to 50.65 percent of the state.
Meanwhile, to the north in Oklahoma, another key farming and ranching state, about 30 percent of the state continued to suffer severe and exceptional drought levels.
The drought conditions have ravaged the region, sparking thousands of wildfires, drying up grazing land needed for cattle, and ruining thousands of acres of wheat and other crops.
The biggest expansion of harsh conditions is in west Texas, including the Texas panhandle, said Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. The situation will likely get worse before it gets better as summer heat sets in.
"The biggest impact right now is in agriculture," he said. "It is serious."
Though May rainfall totals are not confirmed yet, it is clear that only about 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 inches of rain fell across the state, which will make the March-May spring period the driest ever, said Nielsen-Gammon.
In San Antonio, for instance, from March through May, only 0.88 inches of rain fell, the second-driest such period since 1885, with the driest being in 1961, when only 0.52 inches of rain fell.
Del Rio, Texas, experienced its third-driest March to May period with only 1.12 inches of rain, the driest since 1906, according to the drought report issued Thursday.
The persistent drought in the south comes even as too much rain has been falling to the north. Widespread showers and thunderstorms dropped 2-3 inches of moisture across parts of southern Nebraska, northern and central Kansas, and northeastern Colorado over the last week.
And in both North Dakota and South Dakota, flooding was prompting wide-spread evacuations.
Heavy rains and a deep melting snowpack from a snowy winter have led to historic water levels in the Missouri River basin and nearby river systems from Idaho to North Dakota and down through South Dakota.
(Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)