Drought and Water Issues for American Farmers

For most of the past three years, farmers across the United States have suffered from the effects of a severe, long-lasting drought that has ravaged nearly every part of the North American continent. The drought, the result of a year of low snowfall and a summer of extremely high temperatures, hit its peak in July 2012, when more than sixty percent of the continental United States suffered from drought conditions (with the most severe drought conditions being centered in the Midwestern bread basket). By the end of July, more than a quarter of the country was experiencing severe or exceptional drought conditions.[1]
While the worst of the national drought is over, the worst of the conditions have moved on to the Pacific Coast, hammering California farmers. As of August 2014, most of California is currently suffering from severe to exceptional drought. Many farmers are still suffering and the end of the drought appears nowhere in sight. A study done by UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences states that the drought is expected to cost $2.2. billion with a potential job loss of 17,100. According to The Weather Channel, 2014 has been the hottest year on record in California. The current drought continues to persist and is thought to have decreased the cattle population in the U.S. to its lowest number in sixty years. [2] As farmers still struggle with arid conditions, concerns over water rights, irrigation systems, and access to aquifers is becoming an increasingly heated topic in the agricultural community.
U.S. Drought Monitor for the West / Via droughtmonitor.unl.edu
In particular, farmers are finding themselves in conflict with growing Southwestern cities and municipalities as well as oil companies and petrochemical companies. While water rights have always been a contentious issue in the West, the recent drought is bringing local conflicts to a head as farmers turn to the courts to gain access to water that has traditionally flowed to cities and suburbs. In Mumford, Texas, for example, farmers are suing state regulators who have given cities along the Brazos River preferential access to water. In southeast Texas, the state has cut off water deliveries to farmers, citing the need to fill dwindling reservoirs in Houston, while in Utah, farmers and environmentalists have formed an usual coalition in their attempt to block the shipment of water from a Utah aquifer to Las Vegas, Nevada.[3] In addition to suburban growth, farmers are finding themselves fighting with oil and natural gas production. Hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking), a newly developed process for extracting natural gas and oil shale, requires significant amounts of water. In western states that are finding themselves increasingly taking advantage of fracking and oil production, water rights are being gradually diverted to resource production rather than farming and agriculture. In Colorado, for example, about 97 percent of fracked oil wells are located in highly water-stressed areas. As a result, fracking requires water transfers from elsewhere in the state. While fracking has not siphoned away enough water to cause a crisis, state regulators and farmers are looking into options for limiting non-agricultural water usage and waste.[4]
The ongoing drought, combined with continued agricultural production and increased demand from the oil industry, has depleted precious aquifers across the West and Southwest. In the United States, groundwater accounts for about half of the population’s drinking water and about 50 billion gallons a day for agricultural use. With droughts shrinking surface water in lakes and rivers, more and more communities are drawing on groundwater from aquifers, shrinking water reserves and threatening ecologies across the western part of the country. Once aquifers are depleted, they cannot be easily refilled, meaning that long-term extraction of groundwater could potentially reshape agricultural production across the country. Recent surveys of aquifers in the Southwest and Great Plains have proved bracing; the Ogallala Aquifer, for example, will have lost up to 70 percent of its volume in the next fifty years according to a Kansas State University study.[6]

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[1] United States Drought Monitor, “Tabular Data Archive”
[2] Ibid., August 12. 2014; Mark Peters, “Drought Drives Down Cattle Count,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2013.
[3] Michael Wines, “West’s Drought and Growth Intensify Conflict over Water Rights,” New York Times, March 16, 2014.
[4] Mark Jaffe, “When Drought Occurs, Fracking and Farming Collide,” Denver Post, February 9, 2014.