Water shortages likely to lead to summer drought and forest fires in the West and Northwest prompted the Agriculture Department to begin intensive monitoring of the situation.

As the federal government's latest routine monthly update on water supplies in the West reported more bad news, the department revealed that Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng had appointed a Drought Task Force on March 1. The task force, chaired by Deputy Secretary Peter Myers, has been meeting weekly to assess worsening conditions.The monthly report issued by the department's Soil Conservation Service and the National Weather Service said that for the second month in a row, precipitation was well below normal in the Far West.

The report said sections of California and Nevada reported the driest February and March on record.

The department said agricultural producers face problems this summer in those two states as well as in Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Utah and North Dakota. Weather has been extremely dry in smaller pockets in other states as well.

The department also said that "concerns are mounting that forest fires could be severe this year."

Lyng said state agriculture departments and state directors of Agriculture Department agencies were asked "to provide us with a constant flow of information regarding the moisture situation and preparations their agency is taking to help in that state."

Many department agencies have programs to help farmers as the situation worsens.

For example, some officials have been answering queries about federal drought assistance programs. Also, grain producers in the Pacific Northwest have enrolled heavily in a 0-92 farm program that gives farmers 92 percent of usual subsidies if they do not plant crops.

Officials of the department's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service said the sign-up reflected farmers' expectations that there will not be sufficient moisture and irrigation water for crops.

In addition to ASCS and SCS, other department agencies represented on the Drought Task Force are the Office of Economics, the Farmers Home Administration, the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. and the Forest Service.

The monthly report, based on surveys of potential snowmelt that provides 75 percent of water supply in the West and on precipitation, said snowpacks dwindled to less than 40 percent of average over California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Experts projected seasonal runoff will be 55 percent of normal in basins draining the northern Sierra and 30 percent to 35 percent in central and southern basins.

In Nevada, runoff along the eastern Sierra Nevada is expected to be near 30 percent of normal. Reservoir storage was well below average except in southern Nevada, where it was above average.

The report contained some good news. For example, Wilson Scaling, head of the SCS, said Idaho reported its first month of above normal precipitation in more than a year.

He said conditions also improved during March in the Pacific Northwest, the western Gulf of Alaska, the northern Cascade Mountain Range and the border of Colorado and Wyoming.

Although March precipitation levels were below normal in Arizona and New Mexico, Scaling said reservoir supplies will be adequate in those areas this summer.