ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Drought is tightening its grip across a wide swath of the American Southwest as farmers, ranchers and water managers throughout the region brace for what's expected to be more warm and dry weather through the spring.
A federal drought map released Thursday shows dry conditions intensifying across northern New Mexico and into southwestern Arizona. Every square mile of Nevada and Utah also are affected by at least some level of dryness.
On the southern high plains, Oklahoma is ground zero for the worst drought conditions in the United States.
The exceptional drought in the Panhandle — an area dominated by agriculture — has more than doubled in size. Many farmers rely on precipitation to help water their crops as pumping groundwater is the only other option.
"We're in the irrigation period and it really would be fantastic to get some precipitation out in those areas," said Cole Perryman of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
Crop conditions around the region are declining as extreme drought spans from Kansas and Oklahoma to California. In New Mexico, about three-quarters of the winter wheat crop is in poor to very poor condition as meaningful moisture has been scarce since last fall.
Along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, the irrigation allotment will be less than half of what farmers received last year. Water orders will begin next week and officials with the local Irrigation district are encouraging growers to use their surface water as soon as crops demand it.
"As we get later in the release season, the possibility of us running out of surface water and shutting down gets larger," Phil King, a consultant with the district, said in a notice to farmers. "So it's sort of a use it or lose it type situation."
In Arizona, there's concern for ranchers as the poor range conditions have left stock tanks dry. On the Navajo Nation, a drought emergency was declared earlier this month and residents have started hauling water for their sheep and other livestock.
"It's been one of the drier years we've had," said Arizona state climatologist Nancy Selover. She warned of the increased chance for dust storms this spring.
But officials aren't expecting any cuts to the water delivery systems that serve much of Arizona's population.
Arizona residents have been living with a continuous drought declaration for years, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the state's Department of Water Resources.
Part of that is due to the situation within the state's own boundaries but also what's happening along the Colorado River, which supplies water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles (16,000 square kilometers) of farmland in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
"It's getting to the point where the debate will continue to ramp up about whether this is really a drought or whether this is the new normal, what's the expected future," Buschatzke said. "There's certainly lots of data pointing to this being the new normal."