Each day it doesn't rain, the decision Bruce Rominger faces becomes more ominous.
With no surface water coming from his irrigation district, the Winters, Calif., grower is forced to choose among his tomatoes, rice, wheat, corn, wine grapes and other crops.
"I don't know yet exactly-we may be able to grow all of our tomatoes but just not plant other crops," Rominger said. "We're trying to decide where the highest value is going to be."
Rominger is one of thousands of growers throughout the West who face tough production decisions amid what experts say is the worst drought in decades.
The drought imperils an agriculture industry in the West whose receipts totaled $51 billion in 2011, according to USDA data. As reservoirs and snowpacks remain at historic lows, many farmers are leaving ground fallow, taking out older lower-producing fruit and nut trees, switching to water-saving crops, cutting out non-essential expenses and seeking help from insurance companies and the government. For ranchers who've been feeding livestock with supplemental water and hay for months, the decision is now which animals get fed and which go to slaughter.
With nearly two months of winter remaining, many producers are trying to be optimistic.
"That's the thing about being a winter wheat farmer-you plant it in the ground, and you hope for the best for about the next four months," said Ben Barstow of Palouse, Wash. "There's very little you can do except pray about it."
But conditions are becoming more dire each day. A stubborn ridge of high-pressure warm air has blocked storms over the Pacific Ocean from moving toward the West Coast, leaving precipitation far below normal levels, explained Nic Loyd, meteorologist with Washington State University's AgWeatherNet in Prosser, Wash.
It is the winter precipitation, much of which falls as snow in the mountains, that feeds the region's reservoirs and rivers through the rest of the year. As of last week, according to state and federal agencies:
* California's snowpack was just 17 percent of normal for this time of year statewide, and just 7 percent of normal in the northern Sierra Nevada range.
* Snowpack in Idaho's Boise River Basin was 60 percent of median.
* Snowpack levels in the northeast corner of Oregon are about 30 percent to 40 percent below average-and that's where snow has been most abundant. The rest of the state ranges from about 50 percent to 75 percent below average in snowpack.
"We're behind the eight ball from the snow perspective," said Melissa Webb, hydrologist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The lack of rain last fall made the situation worse, as late-year rainstorms usually increase soil moisture and allow snowpack to boost streamflows in the following spring, she said. Without adequate soil moisture, melting snow soaks into the ground rather than contributing to surface water levels.
Carryover storage of water in Oregon's reservoirs won't improve the picture, as statewide levels are roughly 40 percent below normal, she said.
"That definitely was low this year across the state," said Webb.
The Owyhee reservoir in southeast Oregon is particularly worrisome, as its water level has declined for the third year in a row, she said.
The southern portion of the state is generally more dependent on snowpacks for irrigation and is thus more vulnerable in 2014, Webb said.
While the Willamette Valley is also facing low snowpack levels, the region is more likely to experience spring rains that mitigate the water shortage, she said.
The conditions prompted the USDA to declare a drought emergency in parts of 11 states, including 53 of California's 58 counties. California Gov. Jerry Brown also declared a statewide emergency because of drought.
Unfortunately for growers, not much help appears on the horizon. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook predicts that dry conditions will persist throughout the West at least through April 30.
Water from wells
With little or no surface water available, many farms rely on wells. One is Lindauer River Ranch in Red Bluff, Calif., which has irrigated its dormant walnut and plum orchards three times since December to maintain some moisture in the powder-dry soil.
"It's not something we've ever done," farm manager Michael Vasey said. "Normally irrigation season goes from April to October. Since I've been here we've never had to irrigate in the winter."
But groundwater in some areas is scarce, and getting scarcer. Already some water districts have told their customers not to dig new wells, said Jamie Johansson, second vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The State Water Resources Control Board met this month to discuss the increasing reliance on groundwater that has led to contamination or overdraft of many of California's aquifers. Brown's latest budget proposal includes money to regulate groundwater, and state officials have said they could issue orders to curtail pumping.
"With this drought, there's going to be a big interest in what we as farmers do with our groundwater," said Johansson, an Oroville, Calif., almond grower. "It's going to be a big issue for us."
Where well water is available, it's not always the best quality. Some deep-water wells in California's Central Valley have had issues with salinity and traces of boron, said Bob Hutmacher, director of the University of California's West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points, Calif.
"It's part of the reason people were interested in more secure surface water sources in the first place," he said.
For a majority of growers, though, even with well water there isn't enough for a normal crop, so some crops won't get planted. Westlands Water District chief Jason Peltier has predicted that as many as 500,000 acres of row crops in the San Joaquin Valley won't be put in the ground this spring.
Near Hutmacher's research center, lettuce acreage is way down, he said. Near Fresno, rows of older trees have recently been knocked out, he said. Many growers have cut back on purchases and are just paying the bills, he said.
"You figure out what costs you can control or limit and try to take whatever cuts you can," he said. "That's probably going to mean (fewer) jobs and purchases of inputs-things that are really going to give a big hit to the entire area."
For some, the answer is to focus on more water-efficient crops. In Wilder, Idaho, farmer Doug Gross may let his 300 acres of winter wheat keep growing rather than rotate to corn in the spring.
"The seed for wheat is cheap compared to everything else," said Gross, who also grows potatoes. "It was cheap insurance to go ahead and plant it."
Other Idaho growers are taking similar measures. Brian Olmstead, general manager of Twin Falls Canal Co., predicts farmers will shift to wheat or barley from corn or alfalfa as irrigation cutbacks loom. Aberdeen, Idaho, farmer Ritchey Toevs plans to switch from potatoes to malt barley on about 160 acres where he doesn't have deep well water as a backup.
Some farmers in the West are reaching out for help. With the USDA drought declaration earlier this month, the Farm Service Agency is offering low-interest emergency loans of up to $500,000 to help farmers in affected areas cover losses.
Ritzville, Wash., farmer Eric Maier has seen his wheat crop struggle. He expects to have an insurance adjuster assess the damage so far, as he has multi-peril crop insurance to mitigate the cost of reseeding.
"But you've lost so much yield potential," he said. "We can never get it back to where we were at before the injury or the drought. It takes some really exceptional conditions to do that."
The resulting reductions in crop production could reverberate across the entire economy. Fruits and vegetables make up about 30 percent of all U.S. cash crop receipts, and the West is responsible for 80 percent of fruit cash receipts and 44 percent of vegetable production, explained Veronica Nigh, an American Farm Bureau Federation economist.
With domestic production down, more produce could be imported even during what is normally the peak season for fresh fruit and vegetables, she said.
"You would imagine it would certainly have an upward impact on prices, especially when you get into the spring and summer when the U.S. is used to having a large supply of domestically produced products," Nigh said.
In California, the drought could lead policymakers to treat groundwater as more of "a backup during drought" that should be regenerated in wet years, said Doug Parker, director of the UC's California Institute for Water Resources in Oakland.
And it could lead voters to approve a water bond of as much as $11 billion set for the ballot this year, the CFBF's Johansson said. The state Farm Bureau has been pushing for at least $3 billion in new water storage from the bond, whose vote has already been postponed twice.
Among growers throughout the West, the drought will no doubt lead to lasting changes in how some do business. Bill Meadows, with Mountain States Oilseeds in American Falls, Idaho, advises growers to raise safflower, flax and mustard, which have deep taproots and can get by with less water.
"I see us maybe picking up some flax acres under irrigation this year because of the water shortage," said Meadows, who would like to triple his contracted flax acreage in eastern Idaho. "I see the reservoirs and water fights at least starting to be thought about now. I think they're going to start asking for control of water use."