When U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared disaster in a thousand drought-stricken counties in 26 states on July 11, the Washington Post ran a teaser headline on its website saying that “suddenly” there was a 2012 drought.
It was so sudden that ranchers and farmers across the United States have known about it for months. “Nevada’s been in a drought for a while, since last year anyway,” said University of Nevada environmental scientist Glenn Miller.
The disaster declaration covered some Nevada territory. A map of the drought released by the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed a red swath from the West Coast across the middle and south of the United States to about Ohio, plus a patch that includes Florida and three adjoining states. But some portions of the swath were printed in a more intense red, showing areas where the drought is particularly severe. That streak started in the east and stopped at the base of the Sierra, a few miles west of Reno, though it bleeds over into California in some southern and northern sections.
The most severe areas in Nevada are in eastern Elko and White Pine counties along the Utah border and along the California border from Douglas County through Carson City and the Truckee Meadows to about a hundred miles south of the Oregon border, then east through Pershing County to about Lander County.
“Remember this—it’s just not a one-year situation,” said University of Nevada economist Tom Harris. “Last year we had tremendous snowpacks. And with the tremendous snowpacks we had water in the lakes, Boca and all that [upstream reservoirs]. Those are sufficient quantities to get us through. That’s why you have these reservoirs. So if we had two or three years and the reservoirs are reduced significantly, that’s when we’d have trouble here in Washoe County.”
He and Miller said that where local residents are most likely to feel the impact over the next year is in meat prices. Farmers and ranchers in and out of Nevada will reduce their stock to levels that match the available water.
“The rangelands are not that productive [in hay], and then you try to buy hay and of course, hay is pretty high expenses,” Harris said. “And so what they end up doing, they liquidate their herds, they reduce their herds to max the carrying capacity.”
Initially, this will mean falling meat prices, but that doesn’t last.
“It takes about 18 to 24 months to build back your herds because of the gestation period,” he said. “During that period, after you go through the initial phase of where all the supply hits the market, all of a sudden you have a death of supply. All of a sudden meat prices jump up.”
Asked to guess when those higher meat prices might start to hit, Harris suggested November, fueled particularly by holiday demand that is kicked off by Thanksgiving on Nov. 22. Election day is Nov. 6.
There is not necessarily any connection between Nevadans’ meat supplies and Nevada ranches and farmers, Harris said. Nevada meat goes to meat packing plants that draw supply from “everywhere.”
He said farmers on the Truckee Carson Irrigation District could be seriously hurt. In a drought, they may not get their full allocation. “What that means, they’re just going to have to space out their irrigation as much as they can.” Some areas have already had their water shut off.
Earlier this year, a Desert Research Institute spokesperson said, “We haven’t received funding for cloud seeding since the 2007 legislature, which took us through 2009. Instead, we have derived about $150,000 from the Truckee River Fund and $100,000 from the Western Regional Water Commission to seed the Truckee River Basin annually for the past three years.” DRI is a scientific arm of the state’s higher education system.
In an essay posted online, Fernley farmer Lori Gunn described the ordeal of drought. She said looking at farms around the area and seeing no alfalfa—it’s the region’s big crop—is strange for her. One of her apricot trees “produced 20 small, almost dry fruits.”
“As the owner of a small farm, the lack of water makes an additional challenge to growing crops or maintaining a safe firebreak,” she wrote. “Winds prevented open burning during the early spring. The fire chief in Fernley ordered permits closed early because of the lack of rain and snow during the winter and spring. Vegetation, already dry, keeps fire conditions dangerous. We are clearing the pasture and the garden area bit by bit, but leave enough to hold as much of the topsoil as possible. The weeds and branches are being stacked in small piles until the winter, which we pray will be sufficiently wet enough to allow us to successfully burn the debris from 2011 and 2012.”
Given Gunn’s reference to prayer, she probably would not object to Secretary Vilsack’s statement, “I get on my knees every day. And I’m saying an extra prayer now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.” But he has been criticized for it by secular humanists and Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri, who wrote, “Praying? I want my money spent on the logical, useful, needful things government typically does.” She mentioned cloud seeding.
In fact, Vilsack never said that prayer was his only tool. He has said he has been using everything his department has at its command to aid farmers, but that those tools are limited in a drought of this scale. On Aug. 2, he had to add another 218 counties in 12 states to the disaster declaration and he has been haranguing Congress to provide better drought aid for farmers. Some assistance enacted in 2008 has expired and the Senate has renewed that aid but the House last week passed its own bill and the two must be reconciled or the Senate must pass the House bill. The House passed a stand-alone drought bill instead of the usual broader farm bill because Republicans could not agree. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic floor leader, has not said when he will schedule a vote on the House bill. He had previously said that if the House wanted quick action, it should pass the Senate bill.
USDA got an agreement from crop insurers for a grace period on payments on policies that cover this year. USDA itself lowered the interest rate for Farm Service Agency emergency loans.
Vilsack authorized farmers to tap a sort of agricultural reserve akin to the Elk Hills petroleum reserve. Harvesting from nearly 4 million acres of grasslands set aside for times like this will provide hay and reduce prices.
The last time there was a drought like this Charles Russell was Nevada’s governor and Dwight Eisenhower was president. That was 1956. Now, at a time when some activists are pushing Congress to curb genetically modified foods, the most popular genetically modified foodstuff—corn—is being wiped out in the Midwest. “Thirty-eight percent of our corn crop as of today is rated as poor to very poor, 30 percent of our soybeans, poor to very poor,” Vilsack said on July 24.