Persistent and worsening drought has spread to nearly half the contiguous United States, the government reported Wednesday.

The National Climatic Data Center said that as of the end of July, 49 percent of the 48 contiguous states were affected by moderate to extreme drought.

Areas of extreme drought stretched from the Southwest to Montana and Nebraska and from Georgia to Virginia, the center reported.

The greatest area of drought coverage to date occurred in July 1934, when moderate to extreme drought covered 80 percent of the contiguous United States.

There was significantly below average rainfall in 27 states in July, according to the Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

New York had its second driest July on record, and it was the third driest July in New Hampshire and Colorado, the center said.

"Drier-than-average conditions have persisted in many areas for several seasons -- in some parts of the country for several years," the agency said.

The past 12 months were the driest August through July on record in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and Wyoming. They were the second driest in Arizona, Nevada and Delaware.

Parts of the Southeast and West have been in various stages of drought since 1998.

The Agriculture Department said more than 75 percent of range and pastures were classified as poor to very poor in five western states -- Nebraska, Colorado, California, Wyoming and South Dakota -- in early August; more than 50 percent had that classification in 13 other states.

The average temperature in July for the contiguous United States was 76.4 degrees Fahrenheit, 2.2 degrees above average for the period 1895-2001. That made it the fifth warmest July since national records began in 1895.

Worldwide, the average temperature for combined land and ocean surfaces during July was 0.9 degree Fahrenheit above the 1880-2001 average, the second warmest July since 1880. The warmest globally-averaged temperature for July occurred four years ago, also during an El Nino episode in the Pacific Ocean.