ST. LOUIS (AP) — The nation’s worst drought in decades leveled off last week after a two-week spell in which overall conditions slightly worsened, but a persistent lack of rain in the Midwest and Plains has barge operators fearing Mississippi River traffic could soon slow to a crawl or even stop altogether.

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday shows that more than 62 percent of the contiguous U.S. remains in some form of drought as of Tuesday. One-fifth of the lower 48 states still is in extreme or exceptional drought — the two worst classifications.

Among the hardest hit, all of South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma are listed as being in some form of drought, with more than 90 percent of Nebraska and Oklahoma gripped by extreme or exceptional drought.

Northern farmers who depend on snowpack to moisten the soil before spring planting haven’t had much luck, as Midwest cities in Nebraska, Iowa and elsewhere are recording less snow than ever by this time of year. Chicago and Milwaukee haven’t had measurable snow at all this season.

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