Cate Casad started noticing the for-sale signs pop up over the last year on farms around Central Oregon, which has been mired in water shortages amid a yearslong megadrought.
Casad and her husband, Chris, are first-generation farmers and ranchers who started off with just a few acres of land east of Bend, then moved north in 2017 to scale up their farm. Now, the couple manages around 360 acres of farmland in Jefferson County, where they grow organic food and raise cattle, heritage breed hogs and pastured chickens.
Only a year after that move, they started experiencing the impact of the drought and water cuts 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 for.
But while Casad is determined to keep 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 cutting back more and more and more to the point in which last year was the worst year yet — and this year, we think will be very similar.”
As much-needed winter storms alleviate 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 don’t have priority rights to the water – putting their farms at heightened risk of failure.
Around the peak of the western drought in the summer of 2021, nearly 300,000 square miles of the West was in exceptional drought, the worst designation in the US Drought Monitor. Comprising 10 states — every state in the West except Wyoming — this designation covered one-quarter of all the land.
But now the exceptional drought has nearly disappeared after a winter deluge of rain and snow — all except for about 1,500 square miles, nearly all contained in Crook County. It has spent 87 consecutive weeks mired in the worst drought category — the longest current stretch anywhere in the country.
Oregon state climatologist Larry O’Neill said Crook missed out on a full year’s worth of rain over the last three years and “by several different measures” has seen the worst drought in Oregon’s recorded history.
“What we’re seeing now is this really poor water supply and how we haven’t really had any recharge in the last couple years,” O’Neill said. “Even if you stretch back to the year 2000 in that region of Central Oregon, 16 out of the last 22 years have received below-average precipitation.”
Seth Crawford, a county judge in Crook, said most of the ranches and farms there rely on reservoir water, “and those reservoirs levels are at historic lows.” Farmers are seeing reductions in harvest yields and have had to shift to crops that require less water, which tend to be less valuable. And then their expenses pile up.
“Our ranchers and farmers have had to sell livestock which will result in a negative effect on their bottom line,” Crawford told CNN, and they “are hauling water to locations where, historically, livestock water was provided by springs and pond. In addition to the issues that farmers and ranchers deal with, our rural residents are needing assistance in well-deepening and water quality.”
The impact of the last remaining exceptional drought in the West spreads beyond Crook County’s borders. Early 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 from local officials, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek in mid-February declared a state-level drought emergency for the counties, which could open the door for federal drought-relief funds.
“If things don’t course correct, we’re on a path to see a massive rural depopulation of these areas, because it can’t farm without water,” Casad said.
A shift in farming practices
Spring Alaska Schreiner, who is Inupiaq and a member of the Valdez Native Tribe of Alaska, 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, considering during her first year of owning Sakari Farm, hail storms destroyed the greenhouses and the plants inside. Then in 2020, the megadrought intensified.
“As soon as we got the farm, [during] the first year, the climate had changed,” she told CNN. “We were seeing winters occurring later in the season. Like right now, we’re finally getting some snow but it’s March almost, and that’s just weird.”
In 2021, reservoir levels in Central Oregon began to drop. Crescent Lake, which supplements water storage for the creek that Schreiner’s irrigation district pulls water from, dropped to 50% of capacity that year, which was the record lowest level at the time. That year, Sakari Farm and the rest of the junior water right holders like Casad started facing water cuts.
With just half of its normal water allocation and later, the water being shut off biweekly, Schreiner said the farm — which grows native plants and seeds from Indigenous peoples which are then donated to other tribes — had to remove crops.
“We can’t not water for a week because we had anywhere between 80 and 130 varieties of plants — it’s a very unique vegetable farm,” she said. “So, what we did was we started shutting off water in parts of the farm and we had to prioritize which crops to grow or to let die, basically.”
As of Friday, Crescent Lake was only 9% full. And given the measly amount of precipitation the region has received in recent months, the impacts of the drought are still strongly felt at Schreiner’s farm. But she said the farm has had to be creative to stay afloat during the drought, including controlling what and how much is grown, who gets its food and how it rations water and food resources.
And with the help of some federal funding from the US Department of Agriculture, she plans to switch the whole farm to drip irrigation, a method that delivers water more directly to the roots of plants and can reduce water waste from evaporation and runoff. She’s also looking to install weather stations and water sensors to gather 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 more crops away, which is income.”
Century-old water laws
Watching family-run farms suffer — and then ultimately sell their land — weighs heavily on Casad. Even some of the oldest homesteads in Oregon, she said, are exploring plans to put their farms up for sale due to water scarcity.
“There are some days that weight can feel heavier than others,” Casad said. And while she attributes these dire water challenges to the drought, she also blames the century-old water laws.
Like the drought-plagued Colorado River Basin, Oregon water laws are based on seniority – those who were among the first to claim land or water rights have priority over those that followed.
“While we’re all experiencing drought, not all drought is equal due to this 100-year-old Western water law that’s been put in place and hasn’t been changed, and that’s serving people very inequitably,” Andrea Smith, agricultural support manager with High Desert Food and Farm Alliance, told CNN. “But it is a system we’re dealt and working with right now – and there’s a lot we have to do to change it.”
While Crook County may be driest county in Oregon, the system is such that junior water right holders like Casad and Schreiner, in Jefferson and Deschutes counties, get the short end of the stick.
But even Crook County ranchers, some of which Smith said do hold senior 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 and make up for the yearslong water deficit.
Others, according to Casad, have packed up and moved to Eastern Oregon, where the conditions are becoming more viable than their old land.
Natalie Danielson, the administrative director at Friends of Family Farmers, said she believes the main water scarcity issue is the unfair distribution of water. If the 100-year-old system changes, she said there may be enough water for everyone in Central Oregon.
“We’re kind of at this turning point where there may be enough water, but we are locked in systems that don’t allow for getting that water to the people who need it,” Danielson told CNN. The drought just puts “more pressure on the system that wasn’t set up to be resilient in these conditions.”
As the climate crisis creates a hotter and drier future in the West, Casad said people need to start rethinking how land is managed, while preparing to make tough and painful decisions.
Farmers have always been incredibly resilient, Casad said. “This is not the first time we have faced insane climactic challenges and it won’t be the last.”