Drought in the Western United States

The U.S. Drought Monitor 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 impact many aspects of the U.S. agricultural sector. In regions that rely on rainfall for crop production, drought can diminish yields or cause crop failure. 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 economy. Locally, droughts can reduce farm income and negatively impact food processing and agricultural service sectors, while food prices may increase at regional levels and the national level.

As of October 12, 2021, drought conditions are most severe in the western U.S. States of California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and North Dakota. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, on October 12, 2021, more than 52 percent of the West’s land area was classified as experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Data reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor demonstrate that the current incidence of drought in the West exceeds all past droughts in the region since 2000. Drought conditions began in the West in the latter months of 2020 and the first 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 October 12th, 2021), more than 45 percent of alfalfa hay acreage in the United States was experiencing severe drought conditions. Data reported by NDMC indicate 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 significance 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 West. 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 western United States is largely dependent on snowpack. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service reported in January of 2021 that snowpack conditions throughout the Southwest were below the historical median. Snowpack conditions were the most severe in southern Arizona and in New Mexico, where January 2021 snowpack was 3 to 5 percent of the historical median. Drought conditions persisted in the Southwest throughout the early months of 2021, depriving the region of the snowpack that many producers rely on for irrigating their crops. While snowpack levels in parts of the Pacific Northwest were above median, these areas also experienced extreme drought over the summer of 2021.

For a map of the latest U.S. areas experiencing drought, and agricultural activity in those areas, please visit the National Integrated Drought Information System’s Agriculture Sector web page.

ERS Drought-Related Resources

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Amber Waves

Topic Pages

Charts of Note