Snowpack indicates limited water supply as Western drought rolls on

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 16, 2014 - There's little relief ahead for the drought-weary U.S. West, according to a government agency's first water supply forecast of 2014.

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The USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service's (NRCS) National Water and Climate Center is predicting a limited water supply west of the Continental Divide, based on the snowpack in 13 western states.

"Right now the West Coast is all red," NRCS hydrologist Tom Perkins said in a news release. "Early indications are it will be very dry in the western part of the West, but wetter as you travel east.” A normal water supply is seen east of the Divide.

"But that could all change by the end of the season,” Perkins continued. “This early in the season - who knows? It always changes.”

A seasonal forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center is calling for a milder and somewhat drier than normal winter for much of the West.

According to NRCS meteorologist Jan Curtis there is a very small chance for normal precipitation on the West Coast.

"The North Cascades in Washington might have a normal year, but Oregon and California are unlikely to have normal precipitation," Curtis said.

Melissa Webb, the lead snow surveyer for NRCS Oregon, said she isn't alarmed yet.

"Oregon snowpack looks grim right now, but the season is young and storms are on the horizon," Webb said. "While concerned, we're hopeful for some recovery in the next couple of months."

Although NRCS' streamflow forecasts do not predict drought, they provide information about future water supply in states where snowmelt accounts for the majority of seasonal runoff. In addition to precipitation, streamflow in the West consists largely of accumulated mountain snow that melts and flows into streams as temperatures warm into spring and summer.

The latest forecast comes as California enters its third year of drought. The state has more than 80,000 farms growing more than 400 different crops, as well as raising beef and dairy cattle. In addition to being the dominant U.S. producer of fruits, vegetables and nuts (including 80 percent of the world's almonds), California is the leading dairy producer in the U.S.

Dave Kranz, director of communications for the California Farm Bureau, said that without additional precipitation, it is likely that some of the state's most agriculturally rich areas will receive, at most, 10 percent of its normal irrigation allocation, and possibly none.

USDA has already declared every county in the state a natural disaster area, making qualified farmers in those locations eligible for emergency loans.

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