As the West's drought eases, this area remains in the worst on record — and it's hitting farmers hard

First-generation farmers Cate Casad and her husband, Chris, manage around 360 acres of farmland in Jefferson County, Oregon.

(CNN)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."
          Traffic passes a sign reading "No Water, No Farms, No Food" near a pumpkin farm near Madras, Oregon, in August 2021.
          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.