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Fox News Weather Center

Drought Hurts Agriculture, Costs West Over $40 Billion

While parts of the Plains and Southwest are dealing with record amount of rainfall and flooding, parts of West continue to deal with a devastating drought. In particular the state of California, known for its palm trees and beautiful beaches, is currently facing a four-year drought with no end in sight.

The catalyst behind the historic event in the Golden State is below-average rainfall and higher average temperatures over the past five years. As a result, agriculture has taken a huge hit since the drought began in 2011, affecting the prices of fruits and vegetables and has made it tough for farmers living in the region this year, according to a monthly report on the food price outlook from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

According to the USDA, over 97 percent of the agricultural sector was experiencing either severe, extreme or exceptional drought. These conditions have forced the governor of California to declare a statewide drought emergency. Because of the typical dry conditions California normally faces annually, agriculture relies heavily on irrigation.

"The climate pattern and the lack of rain and snow in the Sierra and various parts of the Northwest is the main reason behind the drought this year," said Ken Clark, AccuWeather western weather expert. "It's very hard to say if this is the worst drought ever in the history of the region, but it is definitely bad nevertheless."

California's agricultural industry is a huge part of the nation's economy, producing more than 400 crops and generating $37.5 billion per year, making it the largest agricultural sector in the United States.

Dairy products in particular have taken a significant hit as a result of the drought. According to the USDA, California is currently the nation largest dairy producer, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the nation's milk supply. A majority of cows in the state is raised using alfalfa hay rather than traditional grazing methods. However, alfalfa hay requires about 15 percent of the agricultural supply of water, and recent water restrictions have made it hard for farmers to feed their livestock.

Crops such as almonds and other type of nuts, of which California is a major producer, require a tremendous amount of water to grow. On average, it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond. Almond prices are currently at a historic high, and prices are expected to stay like that moving forward. Clark believes that the mandates issued by the state to both the general public and farmers are a good step towards addressing the drought issue in the region.

Steve Lyle, director of public affairs at California Department of Food and Agriculture, stated that farmers living in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a region heavily affected by the drought, have voluntarily reduced their water rights by 25 percent.

Washington and Oregon are also feeling the effects of this historic drought and were forced to declare a statewide drought emergency. The Washington Department is projecting a $1.2 billion crop loss as a result of the drought.

They have taken precautions to save crops as the summer months approach by turning off water for several weeks in the Yakima Valley, the most productive agricultural region in the state, in an attempt to prolong water supplies.

According to Northwest Public Radio, Yakima Valley, known for producing cherries, apples, mint and wine grapes, is expected to receive just under 40 percent of their normal supply. A huge part of keeping the rivers flowing and crops watered in the state is through snowmelt during the spring.

In a recent report issued by the USDA, snowpack in the state is currently at about 15 percent of normal, which is 10 percent lower since the last statewide drought was issued in Washington.

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown declared a drought emergency in the seven largest counties in the state. Experts believe that the drought is affecting about two-thirds of the state and is either unavoidable or likely statewide.

Because a majority of the rain and snow falls from October to March, many farmers living in Oregon rely on that precipitation during the summer months. Oregon is a top vegetable-producing state and is also a producer of berries, pears, plums and cherries. The lack of snowpack on Mt. Hood, the largest mountain in the state, will force prices of fruit not only in the state but across the nation to rise. The drought has also affected beef prices, which rose 19 percent due to the fact that pastures where cattle drink was unable to be filled due to the lack of water.

Farmers have taken matters into their own hands and removed land from active use to make way to grow low-water crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Small Business Administration have also assisted farmers by giving emergency aid money and offering low-interest loans to people living in these states to assist them in losses they have encountered as a result of the drought.

"Looking forward, a moderate to strong El Niño in the 2015-2016 season should provide relief to those living in areas of the West," Clark said. "We have dealt with periods of three to four years of dry weather then a couple of years of average rainfall. This isn't a long-term solution to the drought, but it should provide some help to residents and farmers."