Farmers are feeling the pain of water shortages most acutely. After multibillion-dollar crop and livestock losses tied to last year's drought, they fear more losses are coming.
Texas rice growers who depend on the lower Colorado River valley for survival are eyeing the fluctuating levels of two key lakes used for irrigation when river levels are too low.
State officials said this month that without enough rain by spring, rice farmers could be completely cut off from irrigation, jeopardizing about 2 percent of the U.S. crop and about $1 billion for the Texas economy.
"We've got a shortage of water," said Ronald Gertson, a rice grower and chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee. "People are going to be both hungry and thirsty before they wake up to this problem."
Forecasts show drier-than-normal weather likely prevailing in the Plains and western Midwest for the next few months at least. But even normal rainfall levels would not be enough to fully recharge resources.
Three to five times more rain than normal is needed in key corn-growing areas that include Nebraska and Kansas, for instance, to ease soil dryness after last summer's drought, according to Don Keeney, an agricultural meteorologist with Cropcast weather service.
Roughly 60.26 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least moderate drought as of Jan. 8, according to a "Drought Monitor" report issued by a group of federal and state climatology experts. Severe drought still blanketed 86.20 percent of the High Plains.
"This drought certainly has gotten people's attention," said Joe Straus, speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. "Regardless of whether it starts raining now or not, long-term water planning is essential. We need to be responsible."
For some, it's already an emergency. Persistent dry conditions in north-central Oklahoma led officials in Payne County to declare a state of emergency this month as the reservoir providing water to nearly 16,000 residents in seven counties fell to record low levels.
The approximately 500 residents of Wapanucka are talking of higher rates to fund a permanent pipeline to a new water source. But running out of water has shown how harsh doing without water can be, said Julie Wallis, Wapanucka's city water clerk.
"We are not going to be the only ones who this happens to," said Wallis. "It's coming."