Cate Casad began noticing for-sale signs popping up over the past year on farms around Central Oregon, which has been mired in water shortages amid a long-term drought.
Casad and her husband, Chris, are first-generation farmers and ranchers who started with just a few acres of land east of Bend, then moved north in 2017 to upgrade their farm. Now, the couple manages about 360 acres of farmland in Jefferson County, where they grow organic food and raise cattle, heritage hogs and chickens.
Only a year after this move, they began to experience the impact of drought and water shortages so severe that they made the tough decision to stop growing potatoes – a valuable crop that took them nine years to build a local market.
But while Casad is determined to continue farming, neighboring farms have decided to cut their losses and sell land.
“It’s devastating,” Casad told CNN. “Each year since then, we’ve been reducing more and more, to the point where last year was the worst year yet – and this year, we think, will be very similar.”
As much-needed winter storms relieve drought conditions in California and southern parts of Oregon, the deluge of snow and rain in the West largely missed Central Oregon, leaving Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes counties dry. And many of the farmers in this area do not have priority water rights – putting their farms at increased risk of failure.
Around the peak of the western drought in the summer of 2021, nearly 300,000 square miles of the West were in extreme drought, the worst designation on the US Drought Observatory. Consisting of 10 states—every state in the West except Wyoming—this designation covered a quarter of all land.
But now the extraordinary drought has all but disappeared after a winter deluge of rain and snow — all but about 1,500 square miles, almost all of it in Crook County. It has spent 87 straight weeks mired in the worst drought category – the longest current stretch anywhere in the country.
Oregon State Climatologist Larry O’Neill said Crook has lost an entire year’s worth of rain in the past three years and “by many different measures” has experienced the worst drought in Oregon’s recorded history.
“What we’re seeing now is this really poor water supply and how we haven’t had any recharge for the last two years,” O’Neill said. “Even going back to the year 2000 in this area of Central Oregon, 16 of the last 22 years have received below average precipitation.”
Seth Crawford, the county judge in Crook, said most of the ranches and farms there rely on reservoir water, “and those reservoir levels are at historic lows.” Farmers are seeing declines in crop yields and have been forced to switch to less water-intensive crops, which tend to be less valuable. And then their expenses pile up.
“Our ranchers and farmers have been forced to sell livestock, which will have a negative impact on the bottom line,” Crawford told CNN, and “they’re transporting water to locations where, historically, livestock water has been provided by springs and ponds. In addition to the issues facing farmers and ranchers, our rural residents need help with deepening and water quality.”
The impact of the last remaining extreme drought in the West is spreading beyond Crook County’s borders. Earlier this year, officials in both Crook and Jefferson counties declared a drought emergency for the fourth year in a row and two months earlier than last year.
After weeks of urging by local officials, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek in mid-February declared a statewide drought emergency for counties, which could open the door for federal drought relief funds.
“If things don’t go well, we’re on a path to see a huge agricultural depopulation of these areas because they can’t farm without water,” Casad said.
Spring Alaska Schreiner, who is Inupiaq and a member of the Valdez Native Alaska tribe, bought a few acres in Deschutes County just 20 minutes outside of Bend in 2018.
Schreiner’s tribal name, Upingaksraq, means “the time when the ice breaks” — fitting, given that during her first year of ownership of Sakari Farm, hailstorms destroyed the greenhouses and the plants inside. Then, in 2020, the extreme drought intensified.
“We just got the farm, [during] in the first year, the climate had changed,” he told CNN. “We were seeing winters come later in the season. Like right now, we’re finally getting some snow, but it’s almost March, and that’s just weird.”
In 2021, reservoir levels in central Oregon began to drop. Crescent Lake, which fills water storage for the creek from which Schreiner’s irrigation district draws water, dropped to 50 percent of capacity that year, which was the lowest level on record at the time. That year, Sakari Farm and other water rights holders such as Casad began experiencing water outages.
With only half of its normal water allotment and later, water cut off every two weeks, Schreiner said the farm — which grows native plants and seeds from indigenous peoples that are then donated to other tribes — had to remove the crops.
“We can’t go without watering for a week because we had between 80 and 130 varieties of plants — it’s a very unique vegetable farm,” he said. “So what we did was we started shutting off the water in parts of the farm and we had to prioritize which crops to grow or let die, basically.”
As of Friday, Crescent Lake was only 9 percent full. And given the abysmal amount of rainfall the region has received in recent months, the effects of the drought are still being felt on Schreiner’s farm. But he said the farm had to be creative to survive the drought, including controlling what and how much is grown, who gets its feed and how it manages water and food resources.
And with the help of some federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he plans to switch the entire farm to drip irrigation, a method that delivers water more directly to plant roots and can reduce water waste from evaporation and runoff. He is also looking to install weather stations and water sensors to collect data that will help the farm improve plant growth efficiency.
“We’re doing everything we can this year and there’s nothing else you can do,” Schreiner said. “After that, you just start taking away more crops, which is income.”
Seeing family farms suffer – and then sell their land – weighs heavily on Casad. Even some of the oldest homesteads in Oregon, he said, are exploring plans to put their farms up for sale because of water shortages.
“There are some days when the burden can be heavier than others,” Casad said. And while he attributes these dire water challenges to the drought, he also blames centuries-old water laws.
Like the drought-plagued Colorado River Basin, Oregon’s water laws are based on seniority — those who were among the first to claim land or water rights take precedence over those who followed.
“While we all experience drought, not all droughts are equal because of this 100-year-old western water law that has been in place and hasn’t changed and is serving people very unfairly,” Andrea Smith, agricultural support director for High Desert Food and Farm Alliance, he told CNN. “But it’s a system we’re dealing with and working with right now – and there’s a lot we need to do to change it.”
While Crook County may be the driest county in Oregon, the system is such that junior water rights holders like Casad and Schreiner, in Jefferson and Deschutes counties, get the short end of the stick.
But even Crook County ranchers, some of whom Smith said hold seniority rights, are struggling with water scarcity. Casad said she has spoken with ranchers there who have had to haul water to their cattle because the springs have yet to fully return to make up for years of water shortages.
Others, according to Casad, have packed up and moved to Eastern Oregon, where conditions are becoming more livable than their old land.
Natalie Danielson, managing director at Friends of Family Farmers, said she believes the main water scarcity problem is the inequitable distribution of water. If the 100-year-old system changes, he said there could be enough water for everyone in Central Oregon.
“We’re kind of at this tipping point where there might be enough water, but we’re locked into systems that don’t allow that water to get to the people who need it,” Danielson told CNN. Drought simply puts “more pressure on the system that wasn’t set up to be resilient to these conditions.”
As the climate crisis creates a hotter and drier future in the West, Casad said people need to start rethinking how they manage the land, while preparing to make tough and painful decisions.
Farmers have always been incredibly resilient, Casad said. “It’s not the first time we’ve faced crazy top challenges and it won’t be the last.”