This story was originally published by The Counter, a non-profit newsroom investigating the forces shaping how and what America eats. Read more at thecounter.org.
In much of the West and Southwest, the climate crisis is projected to raise average temperatures while reducing snowpack for much of the foreseeable future. These trends will significantly increase the risk of drought in an area heavily dependent on irrigation for food production.
So what’s the plan? For many farming communities, there is none.
That’s according to a new report on drought preparedness published by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which found that approximately 80 percent of irrigation organizations don’t have a formal plan for responding to future water scarcity. The finding came from a 2019 survey of irrigation organizations, which USDA defines to include the various types of entities tasked with delivering water to farms. These groups can take many forms: Some are public utilities that manage an entire community’s water supply, others include private companies contracted to maintain water and irrigation infrastructure for a group of farms. The survey—the first of its kind conducted in more than 40 years—drew responses on the subject of drought resilience from more than 2,000 respondents in the 24 states where irrigated agriculture is most common.
Despite the broad exposure to drought risk and growing frequency of drought in response to climate change, only one-fifth of irrigation organizations have formal drought plans.
“Despite the broad exposure to drought risk and growing frequency of drought in response to climate change,” the report authors wrote, “only one-fifth of irrigation organizations have formal drought plans.”
Drought plans outline what exactly an irrigation organization intends to do during periods of scarcity. For instance, an irrigation district might pay farmers to not farm, or it may invest in groundwater pumping, or it could buy water from neighboring regions or a private supplier. It might ration water to farmers based on their acreage, or it might cut off some producers to prioritize others, based on seniority.
The proportion of irrigation entities with a formal drought plan was higher among larger groups—which the authors defined as serving 10,000 acres of farmland or more—clocking in at 41 percent. Still, that means the majority of those entities responsible for delivering water to the biggest agricultural regions don’t yet have official guidelines on how they may curtail and divvy limited resources during periods of scarcity.
There are some important caveats to note here. For one, these numbers may have ticked upwards since 2019, particularly in response to record dry…