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Spring weather outlook: Drought in West, floods in East

Much of the West including California, Nevada and Oregon will endure a fourth year of drought, with dry conditions increasing the likelihood of wildfires and adding further hardship to struggling farmers.

The dire prediction, made Thursday, was part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Spring Outlook for April to June, which found that while the West Coast will be unable to wrench itself from the grips of a multi-year drought trend, the East is in danger of flooding from the melting of record-setting snowfall.

On the Pacific, NOAA officials said, the weather phenomenon known as El Nino arrived too late and was too weak to help replenish water in the region. Another factor has been the record-low snow pack this winter, due to above average temperatures from the Rockies to the West Coast. California and several other states saw record highs.

"If the drought persists as predicted in the Far West, it will result in an early and active wildfire season, continued stress on crops due to low reservoir levels and expansion of water conservation measures," Jon Gottschalck, chief of the operational prediction branch at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, told reporters.

Dryer conditions will also be seen in parts of the northern Plains, upper Mississippi Valley and western Great Lakes.

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The forecast couldn't be more different farther east.

Record snowfall and unusually cold temperatures in February through early March have increased the likelihood of floods across northern New England and western New York.

"Rivers in these areas are expected to exceed moderate flood levels this spring if there is a quick warm up with heavy rainfall," Mary Mullusky, acting chief of NOAA's Hydrologic Services Division, told reporters.

There is also a 50 percent chance of exceeding moderate flood levels in small streams and rivers in the lower Missouri River basin in Missouri and eastern Kansas. This flood potential will be driven by rain and thunderstorms.

For a second year running, no region is at risk of exceeding major flood levels.

Much of the West beyond the Rockies will also see a warmer than average spring, with above average temperatures projected across the Far West, northern Rockies, and northern Plains eastward to include parts of the western Great Lakes, and for all of Alaska. Below normal temperatures are most likely this spring for Texas and nearby areas of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The warmer temperatures echo trends seen from December through February, NOAA reported. The average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.42 degrees F above the 20th century average. This was the highest for that period since record keeping began in 1880. It surpassed the previous record set in 2007 by 0.05 degrees F.

And that comes on top of record temperatures in 2014, driven in part by rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The latest forecasts will be especially dispiriting for California, which has watched as lakes dried up and its economy lost as much $2.2 billion and shed 17,000 seasonal and part-time jobs. A NASA study found that California would need 11 trillion gallons of water to recover from its three-year dry spell. That's roughly equivalent to filling up Lake Meade, the U.S.'s largest reservoir, one and a half times.

"Everybody in California is under restrictions, pressure. It is not easy now and a fourth year of drought, a fifth year of drought will be more perilous as reservoirs continue to drop," NOAA hydrologist Robert Hartman said. "They are already at low levels and ... our snowpack is a record low, quite dismal. So our spring runoff is not going to be much to write home about."

Farmers have been hit especially hard, with new water restrictions forcing them to pull back on the amount of acres planted. There was an 11 percent reduction in planting acres in 2014 compared to 2013, according to Brad Rippey, meteorologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with water-intensive crops like rice and cotton down a quarter.

Those trends will continue.

"I see nothing that would indicate much improvement, if any improvement, in the overall situation for field crops in 2015," Rippey said. "We are in the same boat as we were a year ago. There is going to be significant reduction in field crops."

  • Michael Casey

    Michael Casey covers the environment, science and technology for CBSNews.com