Drought in the West: America’s Farmers & Ranchers on Surviving the Worst Drought in Recorded History

Northern California drought

Ranchers and farmers across the American West are struggling to weather the most severe drought recorded in the history of the region.

The past 30 days have brought 585 heat records nationwide according to NOAA data—349 records for daily high temperatures, 236 for hottest overnight temperatures. Preliminary reports say Death Valley reached 130 degrees, the hottest temperature recorded on the planet in decades.

Almost 60% of the American West is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Soil moisture levels are much of the region’s lowest-ever, according to NOAA and NASA records. Over the past decade, annual precipitation has averaged 19 inches. The June 2020-June 2021 season saw an average of just 13.6 inches of snow and rain.

Cattle ranchers are forced to make tough decisions. They’re dealing with fluctuating markets and expensive feed on top of water and forage shortages. Some have been forced to thin herds, selling off cattle just to make it through the year.

At the Rugby Livestock Auction in Rugby, North Dakota.
Photo Credit: Ellie Ann Photography (Lizzy Cernin)

“Parts of North Dakota had three inches of rain in 2020 and this year some parts have had four or less,” rancher Lizzy Cernin wrote in a post on Instagram. “Ranchers are having to sell cattle and all their hard work to build up their herd and support their families all because there are few resources left to get through the summer, let alone the harsh winter.”

Ms. Cernin snapped a photo of a large billboard outside the Rugby Livestock Auction in Rugby, North Dakota: CATTLEMEN PRAYERS R WITH YOU.

“Rugby saw its highest record of pairs sold in the beginning of June—over 1000,” she wrote. “Ranchers are struggling all over the West.”

Wells, lakes, and ponds are running dry. For many ranchers, the expense of trucking in drinking water is prohibitive. Forage is limited and hay is expensive. Some ranchers are rotating pastures more often, others are trucking livestock over state lines to greener pastures. Almost all are concerned about the impending fire season.

Kayla Delbar is a rancher in Potter Valley, California, where 2018’s Mendocino Complex Fire broke the state’s wildfire record at 449,123 acres. Then just two years later in 2020, the August Complex started in the mountains outside Potter Valley and broke that record again, blazing to 1,032,648 acres. Ms. Delbar runs her cattle on several land leases.

“No water means no grazing means excess plant growth means fire danger,” she says.

Many Western ranches are still recovering from the voracious wildfires of the last few years. Photo credit: Kayla Delbar

Farmers are also having a hard time. Over 183 million acres of cropland are currently under drought conditions.

“The farmers in our area have been hit hard with the lack of rain and the heat wave didn’t help,” says Tess Prater, who grew up on a wheat and cattle farm in eastern Oregon at the base of the Blue Mountains. “For some, harvest has had to start about a month earlier than scheduled and the yield is low. The heads of wheat aren’t full and there are sparse patches throughout the fields. It’s heartbreaking. My dad told me about the drought back in 1977 and this seems to be equal or a bit worse in some areas. We’re just thankful for the crops we do have and already praying for next year’s.”

Ag producers across the West often clash with state and local regulations that they say make a hard job all but impossible. This is especially true in the West Coast states where large metropolitan regions dominate state politics and drown out the needs of small producers in rural regions.

“Our irrigation district cut us back to every 21 days to water from the original 14,” Ms. Delbar says. “But now the soil is so depleted it takes more water to rehydrate at 21 days than it did at 14. They are going through more water by ‘cutting us back.’”

Another farmer in California’s San Joaquin Valley says the West needs to take a long-term perspective on water management and drought prevention. Tackling this megadrought will require serious infrastructure including dams, as well as evaluating regulations that squeeze ag producers already struggling to survive in parched conditions. This individual, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the water conflict, spoke directly about California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

“With the new law California passed to limit groundwater pumping, our county isn’t approving permits for well repairs or new well drills. Landowners are struggling to get enough water on their crop. In Madera County, the Board of Supervisors approved no water to be allocated to rangeland, effective 2022. The state has given farmers an impossible task asking us to farm on such little water. They will run small operations out of business.”

Indian Valley Reservoir running empty in Northern California. Photo Credit: Kayla Delbar
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