Excessive Drought Grips Western Agriculture

The latest western drought information is looking more and more bleak as the summer sets in. Further expansion of moderate to exceptional drought (D1 to D4) was introduced in parts of California and the Northwest, as agricultural, wildfire, and water-supply impacts continued to mount. Washington continued to lead the country in several drought-related agricultural categories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including topsoil moisture rated very short to short, as well as very poor to poor ratings for rangeland and pastures (97%) and spring wheat (88%).


In addition to Washington, at least two-thirds of the rangeland and pastures were rated very poor to poor in Montana (91%), Arizona (82%), Oregon (80%), and Utah (69%). Montana rivaled Washington for agricultural drought severity, with topsoil moisture rated 97% very short to short and a nation-leading 70% of its barley rated very poor to poor.


Farther south, however, an active monsoon circulation delivered drought relief in the form of diurnal showers and thunderstorms, some heavy. Up to one category of improvement was introduced in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, and southern sections of Utah and Nevada. In Arizona, Tucson received more rain in 6 days (4.20 inches fell from July 20-25) than during all of 2020, when annual precipitation of 4.17 inches was the lowest on record. Despite the positive effect of monsoonal showers on surface conditions (e.g. improved vegetation health, topsoil moisture, and streamflow), serious long-term, underlying drought persisted, with obvious impacts on groundwater and reservoirs.


The surface elevation of Lake Mead, on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, fell to a new record low—1,067.59 feet above sea level. In Utah, the surface elevation of the Great Salt Lake fell below 4,191.4 feet in late July, breaking the previous record low set in 1963.


Cattle producers in the west have begun reducing herds within the production chain. Similar to the 2014 drought, western ranchers have been transferring livestock to the great plains and shipping in hay from the east. The feed available is running low and resulting in a larger than normal culling cycle. Less snowpack and rain runoff has led to a chain of events that have resulted in a lack of water and sustainable grass growth.

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