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Western farmers’ water supply could be cut in half by the end of the century, report finds

A field irrigation sprinkler system sprays water on rows of green lettuce crops on farmland. In the background are brown-shaded mountains.
David A Litman
Adobe Stock
A field irrigation sprinkler system waters rows of lettuce crops on farmland in the Salinas Valley of central California.

A new study shows just how much climate change is shrinking water supplies for Western farmers. But its authors also have some ideas of what they could do to adapt.

Researchers at the Desert Research Institute found many farming communities in the West may see the amount of water they’ve been able to store in reservoirs cut in half by the end of the century. That’s because climate change is shriveling snowpacks and altering snowmelt patterns that farmers and ranchers rely on for irrigation.

What’s more, expanding reservoir capacity to make up for water shortages will be difficult in a warming future with less snow, said Beatrice Gordon, the study’s lead author.

“Reservoirs are agriculture’s big savings account, and so climate change is draining the savings account,” she said. “And so, I think what agriculture is sort of facing in this is how to sustain their lifestyle and continue to grow crops?”

Gordon’s team examined decades of data related to water supply and demand for more than a dozen farming communities and projected what those levels could look like in the coming decades.

Researchers found that switching to less water-intensive crops and reducing total crop acreage are the most effective strategies. In fact, those water conservation practices can restore an average of about 20% of a reservoir's capacity.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.