July 28, 2023
Anyone trying to get wheat out of the field this year knows firsthand — the rains have returned to the Plains.
And according to the USDA Economic Research Service, the western U.S. is starting to feel the benefits.
The Western U.S. includes all the states west of Kansas. As of July 2023, drought conditions have improved across much of the Western half of the country when compared not only with earlier in the year, but also with 2021 and 2022.
SOME IMPROVEMENT: Using U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Drought Monitor data, this chart shows the percentage of land area in the West experiencing differing levels of drought between 2000 and 2023. The summer of 2021 saw the largest percentage of western U.S. land area experiencing extreme or exceptional drought during the period. Conditions remained severe in 2022, but have declined over the 2022-23 winter due to substantial precipitation.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, on July 11, 3% of land in the West was classified as experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, with an additional 8% classified as severe. This is down from June 2023, when 18% of land in the West was classified as in extreme or exceptional drought.
Significant precipitation and snowpack accumulation over the 2022-23 winter and spring reduced the prevalence of drought in the area, notably in California.
However, conditions remain dry in Kansas and Nebraska, where severe or worse drought conditions affect 55% and 48% of land, respectively. This despite rain events that have delayed wheat harvest across much of the region.
Data reported by U.S. Drought Monitor show Western drought conditions intensified during summer 2021, then gradually subsided between October and December 2021. They intensified again in the first half of 2022 before starting to subside again.
For agriculture, drought means diminished crop and livestock outputs and reduced profitability if adaptive measures such as irrigation are not used. Drought also reduces the quantity of snowpack and streamflow available for diversions to irrigated agricultural land. These impacts can reverberate throughout local, regional and national economies.
Take alfalfa, for example. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, as of April 4, approximately 12% of alfalfa hay acreage in the United States was experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought conditions. This number is a decline from the peak of drought conditions in August 2021, when 52% of alfalfa hay acreage was affected by severe or worse drought conditions. That has potential repercussions for livestock feed and eventually consumer prices for meat and dairy.
Find additional information on the USDA Economic Research Service’s Newsroom page Drought in the Western United States.
USDA ERS contributed to this article.
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