Climate-Driven, Record-Breaking Drought in West Demands Congressional Action Now

June 9, 2021

Perennial occurrences of drought have long plagued the western United States. But those who maintain and post the weather maps and the growers that rely on precipitation in the region will all tell you the same thing: the lack of precipitation, either from snow or rain this year, is unprecedented.

Officials with the North American Drought Monitor (NADM), a cooperative effort between experts in Canada, Mexico and the United States, say that more than 70 percent of the region is dealing with the most severe drought in the monitor’s recorded history.

Officials say the onslaught of hot and dry conditions over the last several months has already sparked a number of wildfires in California, Arizona and New Mexico – circumstances that are expected to worsen throughout the summer and beyond, possibly even exceeding the damages done and pain suffered during last year’s widespread, horrific wildfires.

A lack of precipitation over the past five months and snowmelt diminished by thirsty soils are resulting in more than 151 million acres of crops and more than 13 million beef cattle in nearly 1,350 counties across the region experiencing anywhere from “abnormally dry” to blisteringly “exceptional” drought conditions.

Nearly all of California, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and North Dakota are undergoing drought, with large areas in each of those states designated as experiencing anywhere from “severe” drought to “exceptional” drought.

Nearly half of California, which happens to be home to the world’s fifth-largest agricultural economy if it was a sovereign nation, is designated as being in “extreme” drought, and another 26 percent deemed to be experiencing “exceptional” drought. The federal Bureau of Reclamation has slashed water allocations from the state’s massive Central Valley Project to farmers and cities by 75 percent.

Low water levels on the Rio Grande have resulted in calls to farmers in New Mexico not to plant this year. Water levels are so low on Lake Mead, a huge reservoir on the Colorado River that is now less than 40-percent full, officials say farmers and ranchers in Arizona, Nevada and other states will likely face reductions in irrigation supplies. Given the dry conditions and the stunted vegetation on grasslands, North Dakota ranchers are said to be transporting water and feed in for livestock.

To drive the plight of agriculture stakeholders in the West home to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., a coalition of more than 220 organizations collectively representing thousands of farmers, ranchers, water providers, businesses  and communities in the region, have written a letter to key members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee seeking help. The timing of this call for help is important as it aligns well with the President’s endorsement of nature-based solutions that enhance resilience of land and water resources to protect communities and the environment as outlined in the American Jobs Plan.

Offering a substantial list of Western water needs, the letter was spearheaded in large part by a diverse coalition of water stakeholders including family farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts and allied industries in 17 Western states The coalition, of which SfL is a member, warned that changing hydrological conditions and an expanding population in the West raise serious concerns about the future viability of the nation’s  water infrastructure.

“To keep water flowing to farms, ranches, cities and the environment,” the coalition said, “substantial federal investment is needed to bolster deteriorating storage and conveyance facilities and build new ones.”

The coalition identified more than $13 billion in Bureau of Reclamation water infrastructure needs over the next 10 years, including storage and conveyance, dam safety, rural water, water- smart technologies, and water recycling and reuse projects; $34 billion for USDA to undertake forest restoration, watershed protection and flood prevention projects; and $1.75 billion for Army Corps of Engineers water storage projects and environmental infrastructure.

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill haggle over the size of what all agree is a long-needed effort to shore up an aging U.S. infrastructure, we urge them not to lose sight of the severity of this growing climate-change driven disaster in the West. With circumstances in the region so extremely dire, when, if not now, is Congress going to provide the policy and financial resources needed to sustain this nation’s ability to meet its food needs, both domestically and in foreign markets. We urge stakeholders to reach out to their elected representatives in Washington and make sure that lawmakers are left with no doubt about how perilous circumstances for growers and communities are in significantly broad areas of food production in our nation.

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