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Irrigation Insight: Megadrought, population growth and a warmer atmosphere contribute to water availability.

Ron Smith, Editor

November 1, 2022

5 Min Read
“The whole Western United States has been in drought to some degree for basically the last 20 years,” says Mark Brusberg, chief meteorologist, USDA Agricultural Weather and Assessments Group. 

A trifecta of factors affecting water demand in the Southwest will alter availability for agriculture and drive changes in irrigation and conservation practices.  

The combination of a megadrought that has lingered in the Western United States for the last 20 years, population growth that increased water demand, and a warmer atmosphere all contribute to water availability, says Mark Brusberg, chief meteorologist, USDA Agricultural Weather and Assessments Group. 

“The whole Western United States has been in drought to some degree for basically the last 20 years,” Brusberg says. A megadrought, he explains, is one that lasts 20 to 30 years, sometimes more. “That happens every few hundred years, especially in the Southwest,” he says. 

Population growth and climate change exacerbate damage from those persistent droughts. 

“A lot more people now live in the Southwest, water resources are being managed to a higher degree than ever before, and the atmosphere is getting warmer.” 

The effect of a warming atmosphere varies within regions, Brusberg says. “If the air is warmer, it's able to hold more moisture before it reaches an equilibrium and starts to condense out.  

“In a dry climate, more moisture can be lost to evaporation. A wet climate could experience more rain in a system. That's why a lot of people are anticipating parts of the East could experience more flooding, and parts of the West might see more drought.” 

How long 

So, how long does this system persist? 

“I wish I knew,” he says.  

He says research indicates the Western megadroughts seem to feature predominant La Niña patterns over a 20- to 30-year period. “We're approaching a third year of La Niña, which is uncommon. If you look at the record back 50 years, that's only happened three times. One of those was at the beginning of the 2000s,” Brusberg says.  

Preparing for those drought cycles is becoming more important, he adds. USDA offers programs to help agriculture anticipate and plan for those droughts. 

“The National Weather Service is putting resources into developing an improved seasonal forecast that would range anywhere from a season to two years or more out,” Brusberg says. 

He says the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) is another tool used to identify areas that need disaster assistance. 

“A lot of people asked if we started the drought monitor because of the Western drought. No. That was just by happenstance; the Drought Monitor had been in the works for a while.” 

The USDA uses the USDM map as a trigger for programs that help agricultural producers recover from drought and other natural disasters. Programs include: 

  • Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) 

  • Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm Raised Fish Program (ELAP)  

  • Fast Track USDA Disaster Designations   

  • Emergency Farm Loan Emergency Haying & Grazing—  Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) 

  •  Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP)  and the  

  • Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) among others. 

Brusberg says he’s encouraged by the formation of a National Soil Moisture Network, which supports operational monitoring of soil moisture conditions in the contiguous United States. The network uses in situ measurements of soil moisture as well as model-derived and satellite-derived soil moisture to develop high-resolution (4 km) gridded soil moisture products for the contiguous United States. 

He says the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Risk Management Agency (RMA) help with recovery programs to facilitate market-based risk management tools . 

Voluntary options 

Brusberg says voluntary programs offer funding opportunities for numerous programs and practices that encourage moisture conservation. He adds that the government working with farmers instead of the government making demands on them provides better results. “If the government works with people instead of saying ‘here's what you have to do,’ it's going to go a lot better.” 

He says he’s been encouraged by the success private vendors have had with practices such as installing soil moisture sensors to provide data on when to turn pivots on and off. “At the end of the season, farmers who pay attention could save an irrigation. Sometimes yields are higher. 

Irrigation Insight:

“NRCS offers programs that help pay for those soil moisture sensors as well as other conservation practices,” Brusberg says. 

He also concedes that the general public doesn’t understand the plight of farmers. California almond growers, for instance, come in for harsh criticism over water use. “But you have to ask people, do you like almonds? Do you like almond milk?”   

Growing awareness 

Brusberg says the 2012 drought got people's attention. He compares that awakening to the Dust Bowl when “people became more aware that they needed to conserve soil. They adopted new planting techniques. USDA created the Soil Conservation Service [now NRCS] that encouraged farmers to do things a little differently.”  

After 2012, he says, efforts increased to make people aware that they need to become more resilient to some climate features. “There's always going to be drought. If you look at a 10-year period, Texas and other states could experience drought for several years. 

“Farmers need to prepare for that because they can't keep going back to the cycle of dependence on crop insurance. In the West, farmers are having to make tough decisions, wondering what crops they are going to grow.” 

He says a delicate balance exists with allocating water for drinking, water for industry, and water for agriculture. “Also, what will the price of water be? Since 2012, we’ve  seen a new outlook on how we manage water.” 

He adds that the current situation seems to be “one of the every-several-hundred-year events with people arm wrestling over every drop of water—not just for food, but for energy production and drinking water. And [the climate] is getting warmer, and I would anticipate it staying warmer. The population's not going to drop, either. 

“So, even if  El Niño rainfall begins, folks still need to plan for the future. People in the Southwest, as well as in other regions, have come to the realization that things aren't going to be the way they were 20 years ago.” 

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About the Author(s)

Ron Smith

Editor, Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 30 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Denton, Texas. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and two grandsons, Aaron and Hunter.

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