USDA-NRCS Stresses Need for Water Planning as Western US Faces 3rd Year of Drought

With US drought entering its third year the USDA advises farmers and ranchers to plan for sound water and grazing management With current conditions pointing to a third consecutive year of drought, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is urging farmers and ranchers in the western US to have drought management plans at the ready and begin implementing them.

The USDA-NRCS National Water and Climate Center’s seasonal water supply projections indicate worsening drought conditions across the western half of the US, the hardest hit areas being eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and nearly all of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. Meanwhile, snowmelt forecasts over much of the West have decreased by 15% to 30% since February. “Except for small areas in the Bighorn Mountains and Colorado’s Front Range, February precipitation was less than 50% of average,” the federal agencies note in a press release.

Farmers and ranchers need to have drought management plans in place and begin preparing for another year of drought, the agencies stress, even if they’re in areas that aren’t likely to be affected. “We want farmers and ranchers prepared at all times. Drought planning shouldn’t start in crisis. It should start with a plan and long-term grazing management,” NRCS Natural Resources Specialist Dana Larsen was quoted as saying.

Western US water supply projections

The largest forecast declines in seasonal water supply projections are in the Snake River and Great Basin regions. “Significant forecast reductions (10-15 percent) are also noted for the Canadian portion of the Columbia Basin, Oregon Cascades, and the Yellowstone, Colorado and the Platte River basins,” according to USDA-NRCS. Water supply forecasts held steady in February for the Washington Cascades, the upper Missouri, Clark Fork and the Rio Grande basins. While they increased over the Four Corners area, they are still below normal for the area.

Climate Prediction Center projections for the remainder of winter indicate drier than normal weather over most of the West, which will mean a worsening of drought conditions in the West if this proves to be the case.

“With only one month remaining in the snow season, it’s highly unlikely the snowpack will recover to normal levels over the Four Corner States,” USDA-NRCS hydrologist Tom Perkins aid.

 “At this point, it looks like water supply conditions will end up below average for most of the West’s rivers. Water resource managers will need to make some difficult decisions in the coming months due to this shortage.”

Coping with drought

Aiming to assist farmers, ranchers and the broader public cope, USDA-NRCS is providing regularly updated snowpack, precipitation, reservoir and water supply information, forecasts and other resources, including steps farmers and ranchers can take to better cope with US drought conditions.

“USDA streamflow forecasts play a vital role in the livelihood of many Americans,” NRCS acting chief Jason Weller pointed out. “With much of this region greatly affected by drought, our experts will continue to monitor snowpack data and ensure that NRCS is ready to help landowners plan and prepare for water supply conditions.”

USDA drought management recommendations:


  1. Minimize tillage as much as possible – no tillage is best
  2. Keep soil covered
  3. Consider killing cover crops off a couple weeks before planting
  4. For crops that take supplemental nitrogen – scale back nitrogen to expected yield
  5. If rain isn’t expected, inject fertilizer so it comes into contact with more soil moisture


  1. Have a drought plan in place and follow it
  2. Don’t overgraze
  3. Find alternative feeds and forages
  4. Improve water resources
  5. Cull herds

“The farmers and ranchers who are most resilient to drought are those who plan for it – providing them with more options and more flexibility during extreme weather,” USDA-NRCS’ Larsen said.

“Planning for extreme weather is essential for farmers and ranchers and NRCS is here to help. We provide the technical and financial assistance to develop healthy soils which mitigate extreme weather effects,” added NRCS National Agronomist Norm Widman.

“NRCS provides information on land, water and crop management options for drought plans. New drought information is provided each Monday at,” the press release notes. “Other resources on drought include the U.S. Drought Monitor and U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook map, which forecast drought conditions through March 31. For information on USDA’s drought efforts, visit

Additional information from USDA-NRCS’ latest report includes:

  • Seasonal Water Supply Forecasts – March 1, 2013. While about half of the northern tier of the West is expected to have near normal spring and summer streamflow, the opposite conditions are expected over the southern tier with the preponderance of drainages at significantly below values. Alaska is faring well with near normal forecasts. California data will be available soon.
  • Reservoir Storage – March 1, 2013. No significant changes since last month. Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming near normal. The remainder of the western states are below normal, especially Nevada and New Mexico. California data will be available soon.
  • Mountain snowpack changes between February 1 and March 1, 2013. While some drainages have increased over the eastern slope of the Rockies and Arizona, these increases have not been substantial enough to raise snowpack to above average values. The Sierra Nevada saw limited accumulating snowpack this past month, as did some basins over the Cascades.
  • March opened with the least amount of snowpack in the West over the central and southern Rockies and over the Sierra Nevada. The most snowpack include the Cascades, an isolated drainage in central Nevada, scattered drainages in Arizona, the Upper Columbia River, and southeast Alaska. Much of the West had decreases in snowpack during February
  • Despite being in a neutral El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) oceanographic pattern, the atmosphere is behaving more in line with a typical La Niña winter, with the western states north of latitude 41°N experiencing above normal amounts of precipitation and below normal amounts south of 41°N (the central mountains in Arizona are an exception)
  • As of March 1, 2013, Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) percent of normal map reveals surplus values over the Pacific Northwest. Near average conditions exist over the Northern Rockies, Oregon Cascades, northeastern Great Basin, some western ranges in Utah and the central Arizona ranges. Elsewhere, SWE deficits increased over the Sierra Nevada, Great Basin, Lower Snake River and Bear River drainages, the southern half of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.


Image credit: bbodjack, courtesy flickr


Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger
A product of the New York City public school system, Andrew Burger went on to study geology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, work in the wholesale money and capital markets for a major Japanese bank and earn an MBA in finance.

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