The first wave of drought impacts has been agricultural: The USDA Risk Management Agency said Dec. 10 indemnity payments for 2012 were at nearly $8 billion. The winter wheat crop outlook across the Great Plains has been reduced, and ranchers are scrambling to find feed for cattle. Hay prices have risen, likely meaning bigger grocery bills as meat and dairy prices climb in response.

The second wave of impacts is often hydrological: Lack of water flowing down the Missouri River is prompting states along the lower Mississippi to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' river management, anticipating hardships for the river navigation industry and all who depend on it to deliver commodities to markets, and some of the Great Lakes are at or near record lows. Fuchs says it is likely those basins are going to be fairly dry through winter and into 2013.

As of late December, 82% of the Missouri River basin and the upper Mississippi basin and a third of the lower Mississippi basin were in moderate drought or worse, drought center data showed.

Fuchs says that while severe hydrologic drought hasn't yet hit the majority of the country, those who depend on older or single wells should check reliability now, before hot weather and the growing season increase water use. Farmers and ranchers may also consider potential savings from using better irrigation technology and no-till practices.

"In the Southeast and southern Plains, multiple years of drought have resulted in widespread hydrological drought issues with water supply and water quality as well as with declining storage and water tables," he says. "In areas where the drought has been shorter, such as in the Midwest and Plains, there are some water systems that are already under stress and more impacts related to hydrologic drought will develop as the drought continues."