Every year brings its own challenges. This time last year, farmers were in the early stages dealing with disruptions from the pandemic and wondering how, when, and what planting season would look like, but they persevered and got the job done. However, other struggles are not as easy — especially when they come from Mother Nature. Many states in the Western part of our country are currently dealing with extreme drought conditions.
As of April 6, 2021, 37.6 percent of the U.S. and 45 percent of the lower 48 states are in drought, according to data from drought.gov. That includes 76.8 million acres of crops are currently experiencing drought conditions right now.
According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration, these drier conditions are due to La Niña and the failed 2020 summer monsoon. They have been contributing factors to the development and intensification of what represents the most significant U.S. spring drought since 2013, which will impact approximately 74 million people.
“The Southwest U.S., which is already experiencing widespread severe to exceptional drought, will remain the hardest hit region in the U.S., and water supply will continue to be a concern this spring in these drought-affected areas,” said Mary Erickson, deputy director of the National Weather Service. “This is a major change from recent years where millions were impacted by severe flooding.”
Droughts longer, rainfall more erratic
Unfortunately, this has not been a one time event. Dry periods between rainstorms have become longer and annual rainfall has become more erratic across most of the western United States during the past 50 years, according to a study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Arizona.
Rain has been falling in fewer and sometimes larger storms, with longer dry intervals between. Total yearly rainfall has decreased by an average of 0.4 inches over the last half century, while the longest dry period in each year increased from 20 to 32 days across the West.
“The greatest changes in drought length have taken place in the desert Southwest. The average dry period between storms in the 1970s was about 30 days; now that has grown to 45 days,” said co-senior author Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the ARS Southwest Watershed Research Center.
Extreme droughts are also occurring more often in the majority of the West according to historical weather data as there has been an increase in the year-to-year variation of both total rainfall amounts and the duration of dry periods. The time between rainfalls has become longer and the rains occurred more erratically in the Southwest during the last 50 years.
Avenues for help
Although drought conditions are challenging, farmers and ranchers are not left to figure out the next step alone. Many state extension offices are trying to help and provide resources during this time. For example North Dakota State University Extension is currently holding drought webinars. The webinars will be held the last Thursday of each month at 1 p.m. In addition to the webinars, NDSU Extension also has great drought resources to read here.
Check your local extension office for more detailed information that can help your operation.