Drought, a fixture in much of the West for nearly a decade, now covers more than one-third of the continental United States. And it's spreading.

As summer starts, half the nation is either abnormally dry or in outright drought from prolonged lack of rain that could lead to water shortages, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly index of conditions.

The index shows Michigan is nearly drought free, with only some counties in the western Upper Peninsula experiencing a moderate drought.

Welcome rainfall from the recent Tropical Storm Barry brought short-term relief to parts of the fire-scorched Southeast. But up to 50 inches of rain is needed to end the drought there, and this is the driest spring in the Southeast since record-keeping began in 1895, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Meanwhile, California and Nevada just recorded their driest June-to-May period since 1924, and a lack of rain in the West could make this an especially risky summer for wildfires. Coast to coast, the drought's effects are as varied as the landscapes:

- In central California, ranchers are selling cattle or trucking them out of state as grazing grass dries up. In Southern California's Antelope Valley, rainfall at just 15% of normal erased the spring bloom of California poppies.

- In South Florida, Lake Okeechobee fell to a record low of 8.94 feet last week. So much lake bed is dry that 12,000 acres of it caught fire last month.

- In Alabama, shallow ponds on commercial catfish farms are dwindling, and more than half the corn and wheat crops are in poor condition.

Dry episodes have become so persistent in the West that some scientists and water managers say drought is the "new normal" there. On the Colorado River, the water supply for 30 million people in seven states and Mexico, the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs are only half full and unlikely to recover for years. In Los Angeles County, on track for a record dry year, officials are threatening to cancel Fourth of July fireworks if conditions worsen.

In Minnesota, which is in its worst drought since 1976, the situation is improving slowly, although a wildfire last month burned dozens of houses and 115 square miles in the northeastern part of the state.

The Southeast, unaccustomed to prolonged dry spells, may be suffering the most. In eight states from Mississippi to the Carolinas and down through Florida, lakes are shrinking, crops are withering, well levels are falling.

"The only good news about drought, says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a think tank that stresses efficient water use, "is that it forces us to pay attention to water management."