Drought Is the U.S. West’s Next Big Climate Disaster
(Bloomberg) -- Normally at this time of year, Katy Kemp’s 80 head of cattle would be grazing on her family’s ranch in Staples, Texas. Instead, the herd is living off dwindling hay stores as drought dries up grassland and chokes off crops. Parts of Texas are so starved for water that ranchers are trucking feed 1,000 miles from Montana, driving up prices there and leaving hay producers completely sold out.
For Kemp, extreme weather has dealt a double blow, with February’s record snow storm killing off newly born calves even as aridity threatens to curtail feed supplies into next year. “Normal winter forage options like oats are months behind,'' she said. That puts her and others at a disadvantage against ranchers in more temperate parts of the country.
It’s a crisis that extends far beyond Texas. Much of the U.S. West is facing the driest spring in seven years, setting up a climate disaster that could strangle agriculture, fuel deadly wildfires and even hurt power production. Across 11 western states, drought has captured about 75% of the land, and covers more than 44% of the contiguous U.S., the U.S. Drought Monitor said.
While drought isn’t new to the West, where millions of people live, grow crops and raise livestock in desert conditions that require massive amounts of water, global warming is exacerbating the problem -- shrinking snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and extending the fire season on the West Coast. That means ranching and farming may become costlier and less sustainable, with some operations forced to move to wetter regions. Western cities will face tighter water-use restrictions, rekindling political battles over increasingly scarce resources. And the threat of catastrophic fires will increase, with big areas of West Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma at risk. It could be especially brutal in California, which is set to endure another potentially hellish year of blazes that force evacuations, destroy homes and end lives.
Unlike the eastern U.S., where it can rain every few days year-round, the West gets its water at set times of the year. But from April to June, very little rain is expected to fall from the Pacific Northwest into west Texas, according to the Climate Prediction Center. That bodes ill for the nearly 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for drinking and irrigating crops. Flows into that river and reservoirs such as Lakes Mead and Powell are already at below-normal levels, said Paul Miller, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Utah.
That’s going to force some hard decisions on water managers, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “There will be water cutbacks.”
Drought begets drought, as they say. When land is dry, the sun’s energy is focused on heating the air instead of evaporating water. That raises temperatures, which leads to more dryness, which allows drought to spread even further. In the contiguous U.S., 2020 was the fifth hottest year in the 126-year record. For five states – Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and California – it was also among the driest ever.
In California, water scarcity drives up fire danger, hurts crops and threatens electricity supplies. Most of its precipitation comes between November and March, with winter storms hopefully bringing enough moisture to maintain its reservoirs. Decisions on where that water goes are made ahead of an April 1 deadline, when the state assesses its water storage. But it’s in its second disappointing water season, with snow across the state at about the half the amount of a typical year, said California State Climatologist Mike Anderson.
Those conditions helped fuel one of California’s worst fire seasons last year, when blazes consumed a recored 4.1 million acres, and are setting up another potentially dire season.
“This year the fire season is starting early and ending later,” said Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire. “The length of the fire season has extended 75 days across the Sierra.”
La Nina, a cool patch of water across the equatorial Pacific Ocean that helped push the winter storm track away from California, is partly to blame for this year’s dryness. But a bigger factor is climate change, which is fueling a ridge of high pressure off the coast, effectively keeping storms away “and leaving the southwestern states mostly warm, dry, and prone to wildfires,’’ said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.
The drought is already affecting crops in California, with winter wheat and other grains growing slower than usual, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Ventura, the lack of rain means the top U.S. avocado grower may harvest smaller fruit, said Steve Barnard, chief executive officer at Mission Produce Inc.
“Water availability is a serious concern,” said David Magana, senior analyst for Rabobank International in Fresno. “In dry years like this, the cost of surface water will go up, dampening planting decisions in the future,'' he said.
As summer approaches, prices in California’s spot water market could more than double from around $500 per acre-foot now to more than $1,000, according to Clay Landry, managing director at Idaho-based consulting firm WestWater Research. Water futures tied to the market have already climbed 12.5% since they began trading in December.
Power production could also suffer. In normal years, big hydroelectric dams, most of them in the Sierra Nevada foothills, supply about 15% of California’s electricity. But the dams depend on the Sierra snowpack, which slowly releases water throughout the state’s summer months. In 2014, in the middle of a devastating five-year drought, the dams supplied just 5.4% of the state’s electricity. Low hydropower performance was a factor in last year’s energy crisis that saw the first rolling blackouts in 20 years.
The pain could spread eastward into the corn belt if spring rains don’t sweep the Great Plains, where very little snow fell this past winter. As much of one-third of winter wheat in the region could be damaged by water scarcity, a cruel ending to a season marked by devastating cold. ``In some places it is going to be tough to tell the damage from drought and freeze out there,’’ Rippey said.
Back in Texas, livestock is but one potential casualty of the drought. The state is the country’s biggest cotton producer, accounting for more than half of U.S. plantings. `We are still in need of rain before we begin planting in early to mid-May,'' said Steve Verett, executive director of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., the biggest producer group in Texas. Growers there are facing a second year of crop losses.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.