As Western US Drought Deepens, Agriculture Must Adapt…Again

As Western US Drought Deepens, Agriculture Must Adapt…Again

Drought covers almost the entire Western US, which means the biggest water user — agriculture — must adapt to water shortages.

Drought now extends across 96 percent of the American West, with more than 50 percent either in “exceptional” or “extreme” drought. With the coming summer and dry months ahead, prospects don’t look promising for any water users, especially the biggest one – agriculture.

Some ranchers and farmers are preparing for little to no rain or irrigation water.

For such farmers, that means removing certain crops and shifting from thirstier crops to those that can survive on drylands, as well as just fallowing land. For instance, a water-heavy crop like rice will suffer, with expected planted acres down by 20 percent. Similarly, almonds, another water-intensive crop whose trees need regular watering, face a tough time, and growers in drier areas are ripping out hundreds of almond acres to plant somewhat more water-friendly crops, like pistachios, or utilizing the land for other purpose, like leasing it for solar generation operations.

Ranchers also face problems as drought’s harsh heat and paltry rains put pressure on raising beef cattle, because the grasslands on which cattle graze wilt and die. For that reason, ranchers depend more on cut hay and other grass crops, often brought in from other farms, to feed cattle. Thus hay becomes less available and more expensive, and ranchers frequently must harvest or sell off cattle earlier than is profitable.

To buffer water scarcity, some pasture-raised ranchers understand that restoring grasslands is key to conserving water and maintaining a productive herd. These ranchers are intent on growing plant and grass biodiversity on their pastures and paddocks, which develops deeper roots, improves water storage in the soil and provides better grazing for cattle, even in drought.

A greater concern than the American West’s current drought is the bigger picture of the 20-year drought in the Colorado River Basin. Scientists have now begun to describe conditions in the Basin as a “megadrought.” Climate change has exacerbated naturally occurring patterns of drought and aridity in the Western US, so agriculture of all sorts must take a holistic look at what is grown and the techniques used to maximize every drop of precipitation as productively as possible.

In water footprint terminology, the water consumed in crops and animal products that comes from precipitation and soil moisture is called the green water footprint. If use of that precipitation can be maximized through efficiency, conservation and farming practices, the less need there will be for irrigation water – known as the blue water footprint – withdrawn from over-stressed rivers, reservoirs and aquifers.

Building resilience through water-smart practices will help agriculture sustain itself through times of drought and times of plenty in Earth’s unknown climate future.

Written by Kai Olson-Sawyer. Image: Drought map of US Western States released on May 20, 2021. Credit: US Drought Monitor.