With a cloud of dust behind his pickup truck, Larry Martin drives through miles of barren ranch land. In a "normal spring," he'd be surrounded by green fields of alfalfa and barley stems half a foot high.
But in passing his empty irrigation canal, then striding in cowboy boots along a barbed-wire fence buried in parched tumbleweed and windblown topsoil, Mr. Martin admits he's given up hope for a crop this year.
Today, he's praying that he can get by with a reduced cattle herd and hold on to the family ranch. Last week he watched a neighbor lose his property to foreclosure, and rumors are that scores of other ranching families may follow.
"We were always told that tough times will make you bend, but a drought will break you," says Martin.
What hasn't broken here is the sixth consecutive year of drought, with portions of the usually verdant Rockies looking more like the Mojave Desert. In what scientists call a combination of drought cycles and global warming, nine Western states are seeing extreme dryness:
• In California, the high Sierra snowpack is melting faster and earlier than during any spring in 80 years.
• In Colorado, sinking reservoirs have brought restrictions for 1.2 million Denver water users, who now can irrigate their lawns only twice a week. Without spring rains, water use could be radically curbed and made more costly.
• In Arizona, where forests and soils are the driest in a century, fire danger is extremely high.
• And in New Mexico and Nevada, low rivers may spur fights between farmers and cities over scarce water sources.
Meanwhile, Montana's tensions are rising: Even outfitters who make their living guiding trout anglers on the streams worry their business could come to an early halt.
"Historically, there have been more people shot in the state of Montana over water than women," Mr. Martin says with a laugh. Yet on a somber note, Dennis Miotke, who oversees water allocation from the Clark Canyon Reservoir, says desperate ranchers call him daily.
"This is reminiscent of the Dust Bowl," says Larry Laknar, disaster and emergency services coordinator for Beaverhead County, Mont.
While a huge swath of the West is gripped by "severe" and "extreme" drought conditions, the Jefferson River Basin, which encompasses Martin's ranch, is classified on the latest federal index as "exceptional drought" - one of the driest areas west of the Mississippi.
According to the National Weather Service, little relief is in sight even with the official start of summer seven weeks away. That's only exacerbated predictions of economic calamity in cattle country while fueling anticipation of an epic wildfire season, an eruption of water wars, and serious shortages in cities.
Mr. Miotke recently told 75 families that no water will flow through their irrigation ditches, a virtual guarantee that some may be pushed into bankruptcy.
The Jefferson River Basin, known as Montana's "beefbasket," produces more cattle and hay than any other part of the state. But now this anchor of Montana's $1 billion agriculture industry is reeling.
The trauma, Miotke notes, has trickled down to affect thousands, from ranchers to grocery stores, restaurants, auto dealerships, and schools that will be receiving less tax revenue. "A lot of ranchers over the last several years sank everything they had into irrigating their pastures. But if they don't have water, it's like trying to run a bank without money," Miotke says. "I never thought it would come to this."
Four decades ago, the Clark Canyon Reservoir was built with federal dollars as an insurance policy against dry spells, but drought has reduced it to 36 percent of capacity - and less every day. The reservoir is in its 47th month of below-average flows. Behind it, the Lima Reservoir is 20 percent full.
The scene is remarkably similar to Utah's Lake Powell, which is half-full and shrinking as inflow from the Colorado River Basin falls short of the amount lost to evaporation and Glen Canyon Dam. Some hydrologists believe the artificial lake bed could be dry by fall, prompting conservationists to ask Congress to decommission the dam.
While that's unlikely, lawmakers are considering the option of federal disaster relief for drought-stricken areas. For evidence of water shortages, Mr. Laknar points to the crater of Clark Canyon Reservoir. The National Weather Service's Gina Loss says it would take months of rain to bring levels back to normal.
"For five years, we've been going into each autumn trying to tell ourselves it can't get any worse than this," Larry Martin adds. "The reality is there might not be a next year for some of us. Even if it rains, it won't be enough."