Summers have always been dry in the West, but this summer is going to be one of the driest on record, with potentially devastating effects.
The National Drought Council gathered farmers, ranchers, state agencies and federal officials here on Thursday to examine the drought of 2001 and found bleak prospects from Hawaii to Montana.
They voiced concern about avoiding power shortages, protecting salmon, supplying water to farmers and combating a potentially disastrous wildfire season.
"Unless we get a lot of great rain soon, we're going to be hurting very badly," said Rich Moy, water chief for Montana.
If it stays dry next year, many fear an economic and agricultural disaster in Western states.
The drought is due mostly to light winter snowfall in the high mountains that sustain the region with slowly melting runoff each spring, feeding the great river basins from Canada to Mexico.
"Snowpack is the key in the West," said Phil Pasteris, a top U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist.
The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has a new network of sensors in place across the West that can track changes in snow level on a daily basis, giving water managers one of their best tools for predicting drought patterns.
The National Drought Council was formed by Congress in 1998 to help plan for drought management. Its 15 members represent federal, regional and state agencies as well as Native American tribes.
The Pacific Northwest is in the middle of the second-worst drought in the last 60 years, and, depending on how long the dry spell extends, it could displace 1977 as the worst on record, according to Cathy Hlebechuk, a hydrologist for the Army Corps of Engineers.
She said the drought poses additional problems for the Northwest because 75% of its power comes from hydroelectric dams.