Much of Illinois caught a break from a recent rainy pattern on Wednesday, yet skies still appeared overcast.
That’s because wildfires in the western U.S. continue to billow smoke into the atmosphere, thus creating the hazy effect to the east, as that part of the country deals with a devastating drought and water shortages.
“Water (availability) is the biggest challenge,” Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said during the Agri-Pulse Food and Ag Policy Summit West. “We’re at kind of a critical juncture here now.”
Extreme, record-breaking heat resulted in rapid deterioration in drought conditions across the Pacific Northwest, northern Great Basin and Northern Rockies the second week of July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday. Temperature readings of 130 degrees were recorded in Death Valley.
Elsewhere, conditions in Oregon are among the driest dating back to 1895, the majority of all topsoil (84%) was recently ranked short to very short in Washington and, in Idaho, the Big Lost River is almost out of storage and priority use is limited.
Despite some recent relief from rainfall in parts of New Mexico, Montana and the Dakotas among other locations, severe to extreme drought conditions stretch from the west along the northern U.S. border all the way into Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
It’s quite a contrast to the eastern Corn Belt, though, which remains mostly drought free and dealt with flash flooding issues at many locations in recent weeks.
In California, regional solutions to the drought include water storage, recycling and conservation. Ross noted three above-ground water storage projects are on the road to completion there while underground storage presents even greater water-holding capacity.
Still, she worries a combination of water availability issues, increased regulations and a dwindling supply of ag labor could motivate more farmers to leave the Golden State. About 50,000 acres of California farmland disappear every year.
“Water availability presents the biggest challenge globally to food security,” Ross said.
“I feel there’s a real decision point right now for the next generation (of farmers in California),” she continued. “Are they going to stay in ag? By the same token, we are the state of technology. We’re using every drop (of water) as efficiently as possible.”
California implemented climate smart solutions in ag after its 2014-16 drought, which caused an estimated $4 billion in lost revenue. The programs pumped more than $80 million into about 600 incentive-based projects which encourage farmers to use more efficient drip irrigation systems and sensor technology to enhance water use efficiency. The state currently seeks an additional $100 million for the programs, Ross added.