‘Wither away and die:’ U.S. Pacific Northwest heat wave bakes wheat, fruit crops

‘Wither away and die:’ U.S. Pacific Northwest heat wave bakes wheat, fruit crops

CHICAGO, July 12 (Reuters) – An unprecedented heat wave and ongoing drought in the U.S. Pacific Northwest is damaging white wheat coveted by Asian buyers and forcing fruit farm workers to harvest in the middle of the night to salvage crops and avoid deadly heat.

The extreme weather is another blow to farmers who have struggled with labor shortages and higher transportation costs during the pandemic and may further fuel global food inflation.

Cordell Kress, who farms in southeastern Idaho, expects his winter white wheat to produce about half as many bushels per acre as it does in a normal year when he begins to harvest next week, and he has already destroyed some of his withered canola and safflower oilseed crops.

The Pacific Northwest is the only part of the United States that grows soft white wheat used to make sponge cakes and noodles, and farmers were hoping to capitalize on high grain prices. Other countries including Australia and Canada grow white wheat, but the U.S. variety is especially prized by Asian buyers.

“The general mood among farmers in my area is as dire as I’ve ever seen it,” Kress said. “Something about a drought like this just wears on you. You see your blood, sweat and tears just slowly wither away and die.”

U.S. exports of white wheat in the marketing year that ended May 31 reached a 40-year high of 265 million bushels, driven by unprecedented demand from China. read more

But farmers may not have as much to sell this year.

“The Washington wheat crop is in pretty rough shape right now,” said Clark Neely, a Washington State University agronomist. The U.S. Agriculture Department this week rated 68% of the state’s spring wheat and 36% of its winter wheat in poor or very poor condition. A year ago, just 2% of the state’s winter wheat and 6% of its spring wheat were rated poor to very poor.

On top of the expected yield losses, grain buyers worry about quality. Flour millers turn to Pacific Northwest soft white wheat for its low protein content, which is well-suited for pastries and crackers.

But the drought is shriveling wheat kernels and raising protein levels, making the some of the crop less valuable. “The protein is so high that you can’t use (it) for anything but cattle feed,” Kress said.

Low-protein “soft” wheats have lower gluten content than the “hard” wheats used for bread, producing a less-stretchy dough for delicate cakes and crackers.

The Washington State Agriculture Department said it was still too early to estimate lost revenue from crop damage.

The heat peaked in late June, in the thick of the harvest of cherries. Temperatures reached 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 Celsius) on June 28 at The Dalles, Oregon, along the Washington border, near the heart of cherry country.

Scientists have said the suffocating heat that killed hundreds of people would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change and such events could become more common. read more

The National Weather Service posted weekend heat advisories for eastern Washington.


On the hottest days last month, laborers who normally start picking cherries at 4 a.m. began at 1 a.m., armed with headlamps and roving spotlights to beat the daytime heat that threatened their safety and made the fruit too soft to harvest.

The region should still produce a roughly average-sized cherry harvest, but not the bumper crop initially expected, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers, a grower-funded trade group representing top cherry producer Washington and other Western states.

“We think we probably lost about 20% of the crop,” Thurlby said, adding that growers simply had to abandon a portion of the heat-damaged cherries in their orchards.

The heat wave’s impact on Washington’s $2 billion apple crop – the state’s most valuable agricultural product – is uncertain, as harvest is at least six weeks away. Apple growers are used to sleepless nights as they respond to springtime frosts, but have little experience with sustained heat in June.

“We really don’t know what the effects are. We just have to ride it out,” said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

Growers have been protecting their orchards with expansive nets that protect fruit against sunburn, and by spraying water vapor above the trees. Apples have stopped growing for the time being, Fryhover said, but it is possible the crop may make up for lost time if weather conditions normalize.

The state wine board in Oregon, known for its Pinot Noir, said the timing of the heat spike may have benefited grapes. Last year, late-summer wildfires and wind storms forced some West Coast vineyards to leave damaged grapes unharvested.

Washington’s wine grapes also seem fine so far, one vineyard manager said. “I think wine grapes are situated well to handle high heat in June,” said Sadie Drury, general manager of North Slope Management.

2021 wheat crop

The U.S. spring wheat crop is taking a beating this summer from too much heat and too little rain, with condition scores at the lowest numbers recorded in 33 years, according to S&P Global Platts.

Approximately 98% of the 2021 spring wheat crop is in an area experiencing drought, according to a July 6 USDA report.

spring wheat

“The other recent ‘bad condition’ years for U.S. spring wheat were 2002, 2006, and 2017,” says Brad Rippey, USDA Meteorologist.  “Those years correlate pretty well with some of our worst U.S. spring wheat yields.”

Conditions have been particularly tough for farmers growing hard red spring (HRS) wheat in the Northern Plains. HRS ratings in the good to excellent categories dropped from 20% to 16% this week, compared to a five-year average of 66%.

“It’s the lowest (rating) in decades, raising abandonment, yield and quality concerns,” U.S. Wheat Associates reported in its weekly assessment on Friday.

Crop Abandoned

Spring wheat makes up approximately 25% of the total, annual U.S. wheat crop. More than 95% of the crop is grown in the Northern Plains states of North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and South Dakota. Farmers in Idaho and Washington also grow HRS.

North Dakota accounts for slightly more than half of the annual U.S. HRS production. The state has been particularly hard hit by bad weather this season and, late last week, pest problems in the form of grasshoppers.

In a tour of North Dakota this week, Tommy Grisafi of Advance Trading says the wheat crop is as bad as advertised.

“The problem in the wheat is a big problem,” Grisafi told U.S. Farm Report. “And if anyone is in Chicago, New York or trading a hedge fund, and they watch it rain in North Dakota and think it’s going to save the wheat … for the crop that’s dead, it’s dead.”


HRS wheat is considered the “aristocrat” of the U.S. wheat categories, thanks to its high protein content (13% to 16%) which corresponds to greater gluten content. Approximately 50% of the crop is used domestically and primarily in bread products.

Soft Red Winter Wheat Outlook (SRW)
While drought has dominated the headlines, the outlook for the 2021 SRW wheat crop is a fairly positive story, according to U.S. Wheat Associates.

Farmers growing this weak gluten class in the eastern third of the United States enjoyed timely rainfall and mild temperatures as the crop developed, leading to good yield potential and at least average quality, to date.

The July 6 report published by USDA-NASS indicated the percentage of SRW crops rated in good to excellent condition were 50% in Arkansas, 49% in Missouri, 74% in Illinois, 78% in Indiana, and 74% in Ohio.

On Friday, USDA-NASS noted the SRW crop quality ranges from 48% good to excellent in North Carolina and 78% in the same category for Indiana.

The SRW harvest is nearly 80% complete.

Hard Red Winter Wheat Outlook (HRW)

Approximately 28% of the crop was harvested this week and the completion level varied widely by state: Texas 92%; Oklahoma 95%; and Kansas 73%; Colorado11%; Nebraska 16%; South Dakota 8%; Oregon and Idaho are at 5% or less harvested. Thirty-six percent of the crop is rated good to excellent.

Plains Grains Inc., which operates across the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, says average yields are being reported, based on 188 samples: “They range generally between 40 bu./acre (2.69 tons/ha) to 60 bu./acre (4.0 tons/ha). Test weight is averaging 62.0 lb./bu. (81.5 kg/hl) although some areas continue to see reduced test weights because of the continued rain showers. Protein is averaging 11% overall with average TKW at 32.3g.”

wheat crop harvested to date

Soft White Wheat Outlook (SW)
U.S. Wheat Associates reports the entire SW crop is headed out in Oregon and Washington, while 78% is in Idaho. Harvest has just started in those states. To date, only 17% of the crop in those states is rated good to excellent.

“Last week’s historic heat wave further stressed the crop as temperatures are expected to remain above average with no precipitation forecast,” according to U.S. Wheat Associates. “There are an increasing number of wildfires reported as drought continues in the region.”

A boater gets an up-close view of the "bathtub ring" on Lake Mead
A boater gets an up-close view of the “bathtub ring” on Lake Mead — evidence of its low water level — while touring Hoover Dam.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Eric Richins looked out from his pontoon boat to the shallows on the lake’s western edge. He squinted and paused as if he had come upon a foreign shore. For the first time in a career navigating the waters of the American West, he didn’t know where he was.

“I could have sworn I was here just six weeks ago catching smallmouth and bigmouth bass,” said the 35-year-old fisherman who runs tours on this 247-square-mile basin where the Colorado River meets the Hoover Dam to form the nation’s largest reservoir.

He pointed ahead to what looked like dozens of tiny steps made from successive layers of dried mud now covered in tall grass and weeds — the effect of rapidly creeping vegetation over a shoreline that has been dropping by nearly a foot a week.

“Now it looks like a lawn. I knew the drought was bad. I didn’t realize it was this bad,” he said. “This place is unrecognizable.”

Lake Mead, a lifeline for 25 million people and millions of acres of farmland in California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, made history when it was engineered 85 years ago, capturing trillions of gallons of river water and ushering in the growth of the modern West.

Eric Richins pilots a boat on Lake Mead

Eric Richins, owner of Big Water Boating, surveys water levels and fish on Lake Mead, where he has led tours for two years.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

But after years of an unrelenting drought that has quickly accelerated amid record temperatures and lower snowpack melt, the lake is set to mark another, more dire turning point. Next month, the federal government expects to declare its first-ever shortage on the lake, triggering cuts to water delivered to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico on Jan. 1. If the lake, currently at 1,068 feet, drops 28 more feet by next year, the spigot of water to California will start to tighten in 2023.

The crisis, said Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Conservation District, can no longer be ignored. “According to Merriam-Webster, a drought is a temporary condition,” he said. What is happening, he suggested, is something more permanent and troubling. “This is aridification.”

As fires sweep over large swaths of the West and scorching temperatures fry others, the scarcity of water is a less visible but perhaps the most pressing consequence of climate change confronting the states that depend on Lake Mead.

First to be hit are locals along the Nevada-Arizona border near Las Vegas, who rely on the lake for tourism, fishing and recreation. Ramps are closed. Jammed boats are towed from newly shallow waters. Fishermen scour to figure out where to catch striped bass. The iconic lake’s predicament is marked by a “bathtub ring” of calcium deposits that highlight the rocky edge where water once flowed.

For Richins, who lives in Kingman, Ariz., and launched his company, Big Water Boating, two years ago to offer daylong fishing tours, the drought has meant thinking of changing his offerings entirely.

“The places where I was catching fish last spring and summer just don’t have fish anymore,” said Richins, a former wildlife biology professor at Salish Kootenai College in Montana, who used to regularly tow his 20-foot boat with his pickup truck for the hourlong drive to Lake Mead. “As the water drops, the habitat for fish changes because some of their homes are just no longer available.”


“ . . . I knew the drought was bad. I didn’t realize it was this bad. This place is unrecognizable.”


Eric Richins studies the water at a boat launch area

Eric Richins studies the water at the Temple Bar Marina entrance to Lake Mead to see if he can safely launch his pontoon boat.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent morning, Richins pulled up at dawn to Temple Bar Marina — about 80 miles from Las Vegas and a popular point for boaters from Arizona to float onto the water. A sign read, “Danger: Launch at your own risk. Low water levels.” He stood 100 feet from the lake’s edge, looking below him at a ramp made of concrete planks that transitioned into pipe mats leading into the basin. But the water was not where it once was.

“I was fishing right here last spring,” Richins said, staring in disbelief at the moss, mud and dead cattails that remained where he used to launch his boat. He waded into the water, feeling the mud with his feet and measuring the drop-off from the ramp.

The mud was too soft. The water too shallow. The drop too big. The boat had no chance.

It was as if nature were playing tricks on him. Richins drove an hour west to Hemenway Harbor, a launch point in Nevada that has become the site of hours-long traffic jams as one of the few ramps to remain open most days. When he arrived, a maintenance worker told him that it shut down that morning. The lake had receded again. The ramp needed repairs.


He drove 40 minutes more up and around the lake back east to the ramp at Callville Bay. He got the boat in the water four hours after his first attempt.

“It’s more gas. It’s more time. It’s more money to get up here,” said Richins. “People ask a lot about tours on Lake Mead because it’s so famous. But I might have to go elsewhere for now, like Lake Mohave,” a 67-mile-long reservoir formed downriver by Davis Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border that’s closer to Kingman.

Elsewhere around Lake Mead, some business owners and recreational boaters have already adjusted to the new normal.

An aerial view of a boat launch ramp on the lake

An aerial view of boaters waiting in line to use the lake’s only open boat launch ramp, at Hemenway Harbor.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A formerly sunken bench is exposed near receding Hemenway Harbor.

A boat cruises at sunset in front of a formerly sunken bench near Hemenway Harbor.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

At Laker Plaza, a boat storage and supplies stop in Henderson, Nev., near the entrance to Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Las Vegas Water Rentals and Bait and Tackle shop has taken to advertising to shoreline fishers and tourists who don’t need big boats. The store, a one-stop-shop for tackle, lures, dry ice and snacks, is bracing for fewer boating customers after low water levels forced the Nevada Bass Anglers club to cancel its monthly July tournament.

“We’re hoping there’s a silver lining with people who don’t get out on motorized boats and maybe kayak instead because you can launch a kayak anywhere,” said the store’s co-owner, Tommy Middleton.

“We feel the economic impact everywhere. Fewer boaters pulling up to fill their gas. People who have their boats stored at marinas might not want to pay fees if they can’t use their boats. The chain effect goes on.”

Middleton said his problems were small compared with the bigger issues at hand.

Kayakers make their way through a shallow stretch of Lake Mead

Kayakers make their way through a shallow stretch of Lake Mead by the now-closed Boulder Harbor boat ramp.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s fun to go paddleboarding and kayaking, sure,” said Middleton, 42. “But anything that feeds off the Colorado River is down. That’s bad news because the waterway is here to support us and sustain us.”

Lake Mead and the Colorado River are created from melted snow that flows into La Poudre Pass in the Rocky Mountains. Seven Western states — California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Arizona — as well as 29 tribes and Mexico depend on the water from the river. Each has signed successive treaties stating how much they receive from the river and dams, with the current agreements expiring in 2025.

Concerns over Lake Mead’s water levels came as negotiators met in Denver last month to take a preliminary step toward a four-year process to update operating rules and allocations for the reservoirs along the river.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river system, drought in Lake Mead is far from an emergency. Yet, the water level is nowhere near what it was a year ago. Having dropped 1.4 million acre-feet from April 2020 to April 2021 and 886,000 acre-feet since then, Lake Mead’s losses show no sign of slowing down.

Patti Aaron tours the outflow area at the bottom of Hoover Dam

Patti Aaron, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, tours the outflow area at the bottom of Hoover Dam, where water is released back into the Colorado River. The lower water levels have reduced the amount of power that the dam’s turbines can generate. 
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“We are concerned, but it isn’t a crisis,” said bureau spokeswoman Patti Aaron. “People have been planning for this moment for a long time and have the mechanisms in place to protect the water levels at Lake Mead.”

But to many experts, it’s a make-or-break moment in the history of a river that has been for decades over-allocated, with less water available than is needed. What’s at stake for Lake Mead is a recreation area that draws more than 8 million visitors a year and generates $336 million annually.

While computer modeling helps water managers anticipate future shortages that could affect water supply and tourism, there is a gap in the understanding, said Kuhn, the former head of the Colorado River Conservation District. Predicting increased temperatures is easy — over the last century the West has heated up by nearly 2 degrees — but understanding how high temperature affects precipitation is less certain.

A lightning strike is seen in an aerial view of Lake Mead

Lightning strikes over Lake Mead as a storm rolls through. The lake is the largest reservoir in the U.S.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Desert bighorn sheep stand near Lake Mead.

Because of declining water levels, desert bighorn sheep have more land to roam near Lake Mead.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The monsoon rains that typically hit the Southwest during the summer never materialized last year. In Colorado, drier soil from higher-than-typical temperatures and lower air moisture has led to less melted snow draining into rivers and streams. As a result of the drought in Northern California, Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Water District is drawing down its reserves with water taken from the Colorado River, which will continue to flow uninterrupted through 2022.

But what comes next?

The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that normal snowfall in the Rockies and the Upper Basin this winter will reverse the present drought. By the end of September 2022, the agency expects the river to bring 8.3 million acre-feet of water into Lake Powell, the reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border that precedes Lake Mead.

The projection, based on soil moisture, temperatures and precipitation, is updated monthly, but currently goes against the trends of the last two years. From October 2019 to September 2020, Lake Powell received 5.8 million acre-feet, and since has received 3.2 million acre-feet.

The"bathtub ring" around the lake is evident in this view

Visitors can see the growing “bathtub ring” around the lake while touring Hoover Dam, which sits on the border of Nevada and Arizona.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
An electronic roadside sign says "low water"

A sign warns visitors of the drought’s effect at Hemenway Harbor on Lake Mead.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Experts suggest that the agency’s forecasts for next year are too generous: “The Colorado River is over-allocated. We really can’t rely on snowpack in the Rockies to refill our reservoirs and mitigate the over-allocation of the river,” said Kathryn Sorensen, former director of water services in Phoenix and now with Arizona State University.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s optimistic forecast for Lake Powell means the agency can replenish that reservoir. But it will continue to release water from Lake Mead and predicts its elevation will fall to 1,050 feet by September 2022, five feet shy of the level where Southern California must relinquish some of its allocation of water. Further analysis by the agency gives the reservoir a 58% chance of dropping to 1,025 feet and a 21% chance of hitting 1,000 feet by 2025.

“To me it is a shocking number,” Sorensen said. “It is one of those events that is of small probability but high consequence.”

For Richins, who grew up exploring the Idaho trails along the Snake River and was a U.S. Forest Service river ranger in Montana before launching fishing tours on Lake Mead, the idea is unfathomable.

“Rivers are my life,” he said recently as he navigated the Las Vegas Bay, an eastern portion of the lake where towers of the Vegas Strip are visible on a clear night. Mt. Charleston, the highest peak in the region, jutted out to the sky beyond the city, with the red, rocky bluffs of the Mojave Desert visible much closer. Heron, grebe and pelicans swam in front of him.

Weeks earlier, he had been in this same spot, spotting boils of striped bass — feeding frenzies made up of dozens of fish gathered near the surface.

That was a good day. The water was higher, the terrain more familiar, the catch plenty. He hauled a dozen striped bass, some up to 5 pounds, back ashore. Boats were usually plentiful in this part of the lake.

Weekend boaters wait on the water for a launch ramp

Weekend boaters wait to use the lone open ramp at Hemenway Harbor.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

But today, his was the only one within sight. He blamed the winds that were kicking up and the searing summer sun as morning turned to afternoon. But Richins sensed something else was going on too. Maybe fewer boats were out because of the ramp closures and long lines at the ones still open. For those who wanted to fish, he wondered if they — like him — were perplexed at where to go as the water shifted.

“That empty lake feeling,” Richins called it, as if in mourning. It wouldn’t deter him from what he loved. He’d go out on the lake again, seeking the thrill of the catch. He hoped Lake Mead wouldn’t change again too much more. But he wasn’t confident.

His boat pressed on through the shallows and toward the muck and mud of the expanding shore.

Kaleem reported from Lake Mead and Curwen from Los Angeles.

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