Drought in the Western United States
The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) categorizes drought in a region according to soil moisture, streamflow, and precipitation levels. Regional designations can vary and are primarily based on historical weather patterns. Drought can adversely affect many aspects of the U.S. agricultural sector. In regions that rely on rainfall for agricultural production, drought can diminish crop and livestock outputs and may severely affect farm profitability. Drought also reduces the quantity of snowpack and streamflow available for diversions to irrigated agricultural land. These impacts can reverberate throughout the local, regional, and national economies. Locally, droughts can reduce farm income and negatively impact food processing and agricultural service sectors, while food prices may increase at the regional and the national levels.
As of March 8, 2022, drought conditions are most severe in the States of Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Montana, and New Mexico. According to the USDM, on March 8, 2022, more than 20 percent of land in Western States was classified as experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Data reported by the USDM demonstrate that the incidence of drought in the Western U.S. during the summer of 2021 exceeded all past droughts in the region since 2000. Drought conditions in the Western U.S. gradually subsided since the latter months of 2021.
Drought conditions in the Western United States have important implications for the agricultural economy. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), as of March 8, 2022 more than 10 percent of alfalfa hay acreage in the United States was experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions. The NDMC indicates that the percentage of alfalfa hay acreage affected by drought during the summer of 2021 was the largest in the past decade. The historically severe drought conditions in the West have implications for the broader agricultural economy. For example, alfalfa hay is an important input for livestock and dairy operations, and much of its production concentrates in the Western United States. Drought conditions affecting alfalfa hay acreage have the potential to reduce yields, which may influence feed and consumer prices.
Surface water-fed irrigated agriculture in much of the Western U.S. is mainly dependent on snowpack. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service reported in March 2022 that snowpack conditions throughout the Western U.S. were, on average, 10 to 15 percent below the historical median. Conditions were the most severe in California and Oregon, where average snowpack as of March 2022 was 30 and 25 percent below each State’s long-run median, respectively.
Please visit the National Integrated Drought Information System's Agriculture Sector web page for a map of the latest U.S. areas experiencing drought and agricultural activity in those areas.
ERS Drought-Related Resources
- ERS Commodity Outlook Reports contain information on the impacts of recent drought on various commodities.
- ERS Food Price Outlook provides monthly forecasts for retail food price inflation.
- ERS State Fact Sheets include data by State relating to leading agricultural commodities, agricultural exports, and counties in agricultural sales.
Recent ERS Publications
- Irrigation Organizations: Drought Planning and Response
- Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity
- Irrigation Organizations: Water Storage and Delivery Infrastructure
- Tracking the U.S. Domestic Food Supply Chain’s Freshwater Use Over Time
- Development, Adoption, and Management of Drought-Tolerant Corn in the United States
- Trends in Irrigated Agriculture Reveal Sector’s Ability To Adapt to Evolving Climatic, Resource, and Market Conditions
- Energy Pricing Structures Promote Increased Use of Scarce Groundwater Resources in the High Plains Aquifer Region
- Some Irrigation Organizations Rely on Formal Drought Plans
- Irrigation Organizations Use Conveyance Infrastructure To Deliver Water to Irrigated Farms and Ranches
- U.S. Food-Related Water Use Varies by Food Category, Supply Chain Stage, and Dietary Pattern
- Drought-Tolerant Corn in the United States: Research, Commercialization, and Related Crop Production Practices
- Farmers Employ Strategies to Reduce Risk of Drought Damage
Charts of Note Highlights
- Most formal drought plans for irrigation organizations specify rules for drought-induced water restrictions
- Irrigated cropping patterns in the United States have evolved significantly since 1964
- Use of surface or groundwater for irrigation depends on regional water availability, legal institutions, and infrastructure investments
- Use of irrigation systems vary by crop
- Large organizations deliver 80 percent of off-farm irrigation water
- Per acre water use in irrigated farmland shows a declining trend
- The distribution of U.S. irrigated acreage has shifted eastward since mid-20th century
- Irrigation delivery organizations use a variety of methods to calculate on-farm water use
- Large irrigation organizations are most likely to own water storage infrastructure
- Cost cited as major reason for not lining canals that carry water to farms, ranches in 2019