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Drought Is the U.S. West’s Next Big Climate Disaster

Water scarcity is baking cropland and ramping up wildfire risk from California to Texas

With persistence drought in New Mexico, 65% of the winter wheat crop was reported in very poor to poor condition, according to the USDA.

With persistence drought in New Mexico, 65% of the winter wheat crop was reported in very poor to poor condition, according to the USDA.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Normally at this time of year, Katy Kemp’s 80 head of cattle would be grazing on her family’s ranch in Staples, Texas. Instead, the herd is living off dwindling hay stores as drought dries up grassland and chokes off crops. Parts of Texas are so starved for water that ranchers are trucking feed 1,000 miles from Montana, driving up prices there and leaving hay producers completely sold out.

For Kemp, extreme weather has dealt a double blow, with February’s record snow storm killing off newly born calves even as aridity threatens to curtail feed supplies into next year. “Normal winter forage options like oats are months behind,'' she said. That puts her and others at a disadvantage against ranchers in more temperate parts of the country.